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