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Illmatic: A Member of the Pantheon of Greats

Nick Anderson | Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It’s not a strange coincidence that the penultimate works of any modern artistic form come long before the form itself reaches its peak. The newest form will, without fail, attract the geniuses needed to push the form to its limits, leaving the future carriers of the form to merely fill in the blanks. As a general rule, this works: there will never be a better video game than “Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” nor a better movie than “Citizen Kane.”

In music, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. Rock will never produce a better album than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” three chords will never produce better music than the Ramones and a guitar will never produce better music than when in the hands of Jimi Hendrix. The latest album to be included in this pantheon of greatness is Nas’ classic “Illmatic.”

This is a piece of contention, of course. Rap has yet to convince critics of its legitimacy. The current generation was the first to grow up with hip hop on the radio, in addition to a series of classic albums, soundtracks and groundbreaking movements founded firmly in the culture surrounding this music. Two generations from now, “Illmatic” will enjoy the same raised pedestal as Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Only 19 when the album began its recording, Nas was rolling with momentum gathered from his guest spots on tracks as well as his performances on the streets of Brooklyn. After several failed courtships on the parts of record companies, producer Large Professor took the lead on finding the young emcee a record deal. Four months after signing with Columbia, “Illmatic” was released. Built on exceptional writing, strong production and grim realities of his life, Nas released the album that would define the sound of a city and a genre.

In a musical climate dominated by Dr. Dre’s G-funk west coast production, Nas recruited a squad of four native New Yorkers to fill the sound on his album. The efforts of Large Professor, DJ Pete Rock, Q-Tip and DJ Premier laid the groundwork for the album. Jazzy loops over sparse bass were an unfamiliar and revolutionary sonic texture paired perfectly with Nas’ tight dictation and sharpened flow. Samples were snagged from the golden age of rap traced back to its rhythm and blues roots. This bargain-bin-vinyl style permeated the 90’s, fostering rap’s role as the rightful heir to jazz.

Nas’ story of struggle could be found on any street corner of New York at the end of the Reagan era. Growing up in those troubled days, Nas’ gifts served his music. He dealt in realities, rarely glorifying the drugs and violence of his adolescence, but also not shying away from their dark nature. A self-proclaimed prophet, he seamlessly mixes despair, crime and violence with bright images of hope for the future. His brash optimism is hopeful, not self-serving. His lyrics are universal, but his voice distinctly of New York in the 90’s.
Working from the production and inspiration, Nas creates the true greatness of his album. Abandoning both the drawls and growls which dominated rap at the time, Nas found a highly articulate, pointedly enunciated flow reminiscent of legends such as Rakim and Eric B. Highly structured verses, overflowing with internal rhyme schemes, brilliant language, and vivid imagery. Skilled writing gives Nas’ message an effective medium.

Sixteen years after its release, “Illmatic” remains a much greater underground success than mainstream mainstay. The roots of rap as an art can be traced almost solely to this album. The lyricism, production and styles of many of the modern embodiments of hip hop owe their existence to the classic work of a 19-year-old from the streets of New York.