Nas :: Illmatic :: Columbia Records
** RapReviews "Back to the Lab" series **
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon

One verse - that's all it took for the rapper known as Nasty Nas to get more heads open than Emeril Lagasse at a clam bake. "Live at the Barbeque" by Main Source was the first taste, and on this all-star rap collabo' newcomer Nas' verse outshined all the other MC's put together:

"Street's disciple, my raps are trifle
I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle
Stampede the stage, I leave the microphone split
Play Mr. Tuffy while I'm on some Pretty Tone shit
Verbal assassin, my architect pleases
When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin Jesus"

Coast to coast, no matter what style of rap you were into, Nas was the rapper who was anticipated most. Cameo appearances and a song on the "Zebrahead" soundtrack only whet the public's appetite, and by the time "Illmatic" appeared in 1994 heads were hungrier than a starving pitbull. Even the album's cover generated curiosity - instead of the man we thought we knew, a photo of Nas as a young child was superimposed over a backdrop of a gritty New York city block. It's as if Nas was trying to send a message before you even took off the shrinkwrap - this is the birth of a brand new era in rap.

If the excitement wasn't already ratcheted up to the highest degree, "The Genesis" took it even higher. Some people knew the score when they heard this intro, and other people were left scratching their heads. Sampling from the movie "Wild Style" and mixing it with the aforementioned "Barbeque" though was just Nas' way of letting us know it was ON. This was to be an album steeped in the rich traditions of hip-hop history, mixed with the most advanced verbal styles and fat beats that could be put on wax. And if it couldn't be set off any more right already, the DJ Premier produced "N.Y. State of Mind" was designed to knock you right off your feet. Primo's knack for finding the illest piano loops and matching them to pounding beats was perfected in this track, and paired with a Rakim sample on the chorus that provided the mental link for an analogy most rap heads had already made by now: Nas was the NEW Rakim on the block. If you're not already familiar with this song, peep a small but vintage section of the rugged third verse:

"I got so many rhymes I don't think I'm too sane
Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain
and be prosperous, though we live dangerous
cops could just arrest me, blamin us, we're held like hostages
It's only right that I was born to use mics
and the stuff that I write, is even tougher than dice
I'm takin rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow
My rhymin is a vitamin, Hell without a capsule
The smooth criminal on beat breaks
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes"

What follows is the song that for better or worse gave AZ the Visualiza his record deal. While over the years AZ has kicked a plethora of raps that ranged from "aight" to "nothing impressive", his verse on the smoothed out L.E.S. produced "Life's a Bitch" made AZ to Nas what Nas was to Rakim in most people's eyes. Peep the ill linguistics he dropped in his first (and best ever) verse:

"Visualizin the realism of life and actuality
Fuck who's the baddest a person's status depends on salary
And my mentality is, money orientated
I'm destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it
cause yeah, we were beginners in the hood as five percenters
But somethin must of got in us cause all of us turned to sinners
Now some, restin in peace and some are sittin in San Quentin
Others such as myself are tryin to carry on tradition"

The track features a verse by Nas that is just as excellent, and as an added bonus, Nasir's father Olu Dara (a legendary jazz player) blows on the trumpet as the music fades out. Obviously, musical talent runs in the family, but Nas is not done impressing us with his debut album yet - he's just begun. The Pete Rock produced track "The World is Yours" is one gem among many on this LP, but it shines just as brightly if not moreso than the rest of them. Nas' returns to the piano breaks here, but where Primo's stark sample painted a picture of a gritty landscape over a pulsing beat, Pete Rock's lush groove wraps around you like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. The instrumental alone would be legendary, but once again Nas proves why the hype surrounding his rap debut was well-earned:

"I'm the young city bandit, hold myself down singlehanded
For murder raps, I kick my thoughts alone, get remanded
Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne
I'm deep by sound alone, caved inside in a thousand miles from home
I need a new nigga, for this black cloud to follow
Cause while it's over me it's too dark to see tomorrow
Trying to maintain, I flip, fill the clip to the tip
Picturin my peeps, now the income make my heartbeat skip
And I'm amped up, they locked the champ up, even my brain's in handcuffs"

It's almost as if Nas had stabbed himself with a quill pen and written his lyrics in blood; because the emotion pours all over his words and delivery. Who in their bleakest hour hasn't wished they had crew who had their back, or that someone else could shoulder the burden of their sorrows? Even though his brain was in handcuffs, Nas obviously broke the chains and escaped to a mental freedom where rap rhyming was his liberator. He proves this again on the Large Professor produced "Halftime" and then one ups it with the Primo laced follow-up "Memory Lane":

"Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Childhood lesson make me see him drop in my weed smoke
It's real, grew up in trife life, did times or white lines
The hype vice, murderous nighttimes, and knife fights invite crimes
Chill on the block with Cog-nac, hold strap
with my peeps that's into drug money, market into rap
No sign of the beast in the blue Chrysler, I guess that means peace
For niggaz no sheisty vice to just snipe ya
Start off the dice-rollin mats for craps to cee-lo
With sidebets, I roll a deuce, nothin below (Peace God!)
Peace God -- now the shit is explained
I'm takin niggaz on a trip straight through memory lane"

Trying to find flaws in Nas' verses on this album is an exercise in supreme futility. On song after song, he illustrates the Queensbridge trife life of his existance, while at the same time providing hope that there is something greater than money, guns and drugs. "One Love" meshes these influences together, with Nas providing shout-outs to locked down comrades over a plucky Q-Tip beat and then in the final verse chastizing a little shorty headed down the same road to jail:

"I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard
keeps me blasted, he starts talkin mad shit
I had to school him, told him don't let niggaz fool him
cause when the pistol blows the one that's murder be the cool one
Tough luck when niggaz are struck, families fucked up
Could've cought your man, but didn't look when you bucked up
Mistakes happen, so take heed, never bust off at the crowd
Catch him solo, make the right man bleed
Shorty's laugh was cold blooded as he spoke so foul
Only twelve tryin to tell me that he liked my style.."

".. Words of wisdom from Nas try to rise up above
Keep a eye out for Jake, shorty-wop, one love"

Closing out this short but incredibly powerful album are three straight certified bangers: the somber and slow-rolling "One Time 4 Your Mind" by Large Professor, "Represent" by DJ Premier, and the closer "It Ain't Hard to Tell" with yet another incredible Large Professor beat - proving the fact that these two linked up through "Live at the Barbeque" was no fluke. In fact, the verses Nas spits on this jazzy version of "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson are just as quotable if not more-so than anything else on the LP - what album could end on a higher note than this?

"Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L
School a fool well, you feel it like braille
It ain't hard to tell, I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill
Vocabulary spills I'm +Ill+
plus +Matic+, I freak beats slam it like Iron Shiek
Jam like a tech with correct techniques
So analyze me, surprise me, but can't magmatize me
Scannin while you're plannin ways to sabotage me
I leave em froze like her-on in your nose
Nas'll rock well, it ain't hard to tell"

Over the years, many people have debated about the merits of this album. Some have claimed the singular purity of this album was a fluke, and the dissapointment of the two Nas albums that followed (which were both more commercially successful and less ruggedly hip-hop oriented) proved this forty minute long album wasn't worthy of being called an all-time great. Others have said Nas was the poet of destiny from the start, and the only thing the albums that follow prove is that he was led astray by his record label in their efforts to make him more commercially marketable. Whether you choose to believe, this album was as much a watershed moment in hip-hop as Run-D.M.C's self-titled debut, Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions" or N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton." In a single album, on a single day, the release of "Illmatic" encapsulated everything right about rap and everything that it's detractors and critics got wrong. Far from glorifying the violence of the streets or celebrating the excess of conspicuous consumption, Nas presented what could only be called pure poetry set to some of the all-time most bangin' tracks ever made. The picture the words paint is powerful - the pain of existance overcome by the triumph of the human spirit. Listening will free your mind and set your soul free.

Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 10 of 10

Originally posted: December 18, 2001