Rewind album: Illmatic, by Nas (1994)
Never has hip hop's relationship with violence been as subtle, as complex or as rivetingly articulated as it is on Nas' magisterial debut. Set to music (from a gang of star producers) that's as dense and claustrophobic as it is invitingly funky, the rapper's unique lyricism, poetic skills and constantly shifting worldview are spectacularly showcased on Illmatic, an album more lyrically and vocally sophisticated than any hip hop has delivered before or since.
Illmatic celebrates ghetto glamour and the violence that goes with it while simultaneously making it sound indescribably bleak. Nas weaves a dreamlike documentary film, an album that feels like a personal tour through the streets of his native Queensbridge, New York.
The two 40-bar verses of NY State of Mind, one of the most bravura MC performances in history, for example, are a startlingly lucid evocation of inner-city life amid the late-1980s/early-90s crack explosion.
Nas' rhyming is supple, poetic and intricate, full of richly evocative imagery, and an unresolved, questing, world-weary wisdom remarkable in a man of 20. His tone shifts constantly, from boasting to optimism to open-mindedness to resignation.
Also constantly shifting is the soundtrack that accompanies him, assembled from a diverse palette of samples, with a profusion of jazz and old-school hip hop. Among the all-star line-up of producers, DJ Premier's jazz- and funk-spiked claustrophobia lends NY State of Mind its breathtaking drive and intensity, and Represent its ethereal earthiness; Pete Rock bases The World is Yours around a gorgeous Ahmad Jamal jazz sample; Large Professor sets a heavy groove to dissonant blaring jazz brass in Halftime, Nas' first single, released two years before the album; Q-Tip gives One Love, a series of missives to Nas' friends in prison, a wonky, discombobulated charm; and L.E.S. takes Life's a Bitch, featuring a cornet coda played by Nas' father, jazz musician Olu Dara, in a suaver, funkier direction.
The chorus of that song, " Life's a bitch and then you die/ That's why we get high/ Cos you never know when you're gonna go", sums up the sentiment Nas is simultaneously expressing and interrogating throughout the album. The daily violence of the crack-plagued ghetto was the only life Nas had known up to this point; Illmatic is the sound of someone realising there's a world beyond that.
Many rappers yell at the world, trying to tell it what to think. Illmatic is the sound of someone trying to work out what the world is all about.
Among the maturest debut albums in history, it's a beginning that sounds like the end of a journey, a remarkable record of a unique consciousness coming to terms with a truly bleak set of surroundings, celebrating them in song while in the process of making those songs also digging his tunnel out.