Sunday, May 07, 2006

Time Is Illmatic

Illmatic remains a watershed mark not just in the career of Nas or Hip-Hop music but also in terms of Hip-Hop criticism. While The Count dealt in a new number each day, The Source's awarding of 5, in this case, mics, sticks out and stands up more than a decade after the '94 LP received the magazine's highest honor. It is this moment that not only forever liked Nas and The Source but set the bar, for all of Hip-Hop, about what "the best" would be. And while both rapper and publication have suffered some rather humiliating public falls from grace, together they helped establish the point of reference from which all that came after, and even before, would be measured against. But what exactly are the origins of this mythic-like admiration and the lore that still follows Illmatic today? Love him or hate him, Nas will go down in the annals of history for two key contributions to rap music: verbal imagery and the polysyllabic rhyme.

Nas would make the job of a sketch artist simple. Blessed with a keen eye trained from the perch of a Project Window, he has always been able to catch just the right detail in his raps. His stories and descriptions are visual works, magnifying the very figure of a gun to the soiled blunt ash on clothes. As the quintessential narrator, boom bap for the visually-inclined, Nas, beyond mere plot details, can also tap into the mental state with language that presents the subconscious in clear 3-D, "I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin." Here he relays the figure of a jetting street soldier, while, as well, describing what's going on beneath the surface. While such has been accomplished to varying degrees throughout Nas' career, Illmatic was its peak.

The polysyllabic rhyme was also a staple of Illmatic. Although not the inventor by far, in the early to mid 90's, Nas brought the gospel to many a New York rapper: "there's no days - for broke days / we sell it - smoke pays / while all the old folks pray." The way he performed, people became very conscious of this lyrical strategy and followed in flock. Cite an Eminem or a Big Pun, the eventual heavyweights all took notice. Then you had lesser known MCs, Royal Flush or AK Skills, for instance, who too began to pattern their tongue after this smooth criminal on beat breaks. You listen to enough mid 90's Hip-Hop, and you'll hear it often. (Moreover, a non-lyrical principle which Illmatic helped solidify was the mercenary approach to production.)

However, beyond double rhymes and Mac-10's in the grass, we should consider something a little less tangible brought to the table: Nas' emotional tone throughout Illmatic. The majority of Illmatic's greatness springs from songs where the mood is depressed and destitute. Beyond the acknowledged technical and production attributes of the album, its real success is inspired by this downtrodden state of mind. It is this emotional tone which propels Illmatic.

"I made [Illmatic] at 17, 18 years old, and I listen to it and it makes me say, 'wow this is what a young man was going through in this society. He's not bragging about carrying a gun. He's not bragging about selling crack. He's not bragging 'cause he's been through Hell, he's going through Hell and he's expressing it.'"--Nas: MTV's Life & Rhymes (2004)

This is part one of a three part look at Illmatic, with the next entries to specifically focus on Memory Lane and One Love, two of the songs that epitomize the aforementioned themes of desperation that helped propel Illmatic to legend.

Nas: Illmatic Promotional Video
BONUS: AK Skills: Nights of Fear
BONUS: Royal Flush: Movin' On Your Weak Productions

*NOTE: Thanks be to k_orr.--Fletch


Anonymous Rafi said...

A footnote about that Source review that you may already know...

Shortie is now more commonly known as miss info (of hot 97 and occasionally vh1 fame)

As for the central themes of Illmatic, desperation is definitely the backdrop but I tend to agree with R.H.S. (who references illmatic prominently as a point of comparison in OhWord features on Dah Shinin' and The Infamous) that the songs themselves are redemptive, encouraging the idea that with the right frame of mind ghetto youth can be triumphant over the hardship of their surroundings.

May 07, 2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

Yeah, the Miss Info, Source backstory is an interesting one (beyond the fact that, as Noz c/o cocaineblunts points out, Memory Lane was originally credited in the review to Large Professor).

Interview w/ Reginald Dennis:
Any albums you regret giving 5 mics?

“I only gave one 5 under my watch and it went to Nas’s Illmatic. It was the only time I ever broke the no 5 rule. Jon Shecter had gotten his hands on the album like eight months before it was scheduled to drop. And just like I was with The Chronic a few months earlier, Jon didn’t let the tape out of his sight. Not only that, but he constantly raved about it. Everyday. He played it in the office about a million times and very early on began to lobby for this record to receive 5 mics. Now I was cool with Nas and had been a fan since “Live At The BBQ,” but I really wasn’t really stressing his album. It wasn’t coming out for at least half a year and I had other shit to do. But Jon couldn’t wait. And he began to micromanage everything concerning Nas’s coverage in The Source. He’d be like, so who are you thinking about getting to review this album? This is going to be an important release and we can’t give it to just anybody, and I think I should be in on that decision. I told Jon that we’d work all of that stuff out when it was time to review the album. But everyday, Jon was like, yo, this album is 5 mics — seriously, Reg, 5 mics.

Eventually he got on my last nerve and by the time I’d finally gotten a chance to listen to the album (remember: he wouldn’t let anyone borrow the record to check it out, so it was impossible for me to see if I would have liked it or not) lo and behold, I didn’t like it. And it was all because of Jon’s constant badgering! So when it came time to review the album, I decided that because my opinion had been tainted, I would sort of step back and let whatever Jon and the reviewer decided be the rating that the album got. So Minya Oh (then writing as Shorty, but now known to millions as Miss Info) did her thing and gave it 5 mics. I was happy, Jon was happy, Nas was happy, everybody was happy — except for all of the people who felt that The Chronic should have also gotten a 5. I’m just happy that Illmatic is universally acclaimed as a classic, so no one can accuse me of dropping the ball. But really, Jon Shecter made that call from the jump and he deserves all of the credit for his foresight. And if I hadn’t gone through what I did with The Chronic, I wouldn’t have had the flexibility to allow for the bending of my policy. So I think it all worked out well.”

And then your second point about Illmatic's themes of perseverance and redemption is an idea I was planning on hitting w/ One Love, so that's actually jumping ahead a little. :) But it's also seen in NY State of Mind ("Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain") or in Life's a Bitch, which, despite its incendiary title, is really a hopeful song; there, through change ("I switched my motto"), those hardships, as you say, are at least approachable.

May 07, 2006 8:07 PM  
Blogger the prisoner's wife said...

illmatic literally changed my life.

i write today because that album inspired me in such an amazing way. i hope that one day i am able to inspire/inform others the same way Nas inspired me.

sidenote: when i was in college, i interned @ The Wake Up Show and got the chance to meet Nas. i was soooooooooooooooooooooooo gased! he was such a humble dude. i was able to tell him how much that album changed my life. it's crazy. it still moves me.

May 07, 2006 8:43 PM  
Blogger the prisoner's wife said...

ps--does anyone know why he never worked w/ Pete Rock again?

"The World Is Yours" is my favorite Nas joint of all time. i would love to see him work w/ Pete again.

May 07, 2006 8:50 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

The #1 Pete Rock rumor is, I believe, that PR hooked up with Carmen, mother to Nas' daughter, and it all went sour from there. However, it's not as if PR always has maintained the greatest relationships with the MCs he works with (see: the CL Smooth falling out, "make my beats, faggot",

You also gotta remember Nas took a seven-year break from working with Large Professor, the man who quite literally intoduced him to the game. But Pete Rock, as recently as a couple months ago, expressed interest in working w/ Nas again. So on that side, it sounds cool. And with the quality of Be Easy in mind, it'd be a good look for Nas.

May 07, 2006 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep it up man... this shit is sweet. *continues reading*.

May 07, 2006 9:32 PM  
Anonymous SK said...

ive been reading this blog for a while, about 2 or 3 months i believe....n so far ive loved it....first time i drop a comment n i gotta say ur a great writer n ur knowledge on hip hop makes all the more better along with the fact u drop an audio everytime as an added bonus....gotta say im lookin foward to the rest of this 3 part illmatic piece......OnE

May 08, 2006 8:35 AM  
Blogger the prisoner's wife said...

But Pete Rock, as recently as a couple months ago, expressed interest in working w/ Nas again. So on that side, it sounds cool. And with the quality of Be Easy in mind, it'd be a good look for Nas.

i hope so. that would be VERY interesting to hear.

May 08, 2006 8:54 AM  
Blogger CMcMurtry said...

As a Nas fan, this blog is like the Holy Grail. Very impressive.

May 08, 2006 3:26 PM  
Blogger Hummingbyrd said...

Damn. The world is small.

You know k_orr too.

These innernets be linkin up all kinda innernational-national games.


Some people listen to BB King when they blue.
I listen to Illmatic. Over and over and over again. And I might break out that pack of thin sticks and burn on and feel like IM on memory lane.

May 09, 2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger the prisoner's wife said...


i listen to it when i need a little inspiration or feel like reflecting. kinda like Sade for everyday occasions, not just love.

May 09, 2006 9:58 AM  

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