Nas - Illmatic - Review
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critics' view

With expectations high for Nas’ 10th studio set, Life Is Good, now’s a fine time to take a look back at where the New York rapper’s career began.

Illmatic’s cover features the artist aged seven. This is when he “started seeing the future,” as Nas told MTV in 1994, as the mainstream media slowly began its affair with a debut album that, today, is regarded a classic.

At the time of Illmatic’s release, Nas was just 20 years old. But to listen to these detailed rhymes, one might think they were the work of a man with considerably more life experience.

Never does Nas hold back lyrically – these tracks are deconstructions of the surrounding environment, assessments of his situation and maps towards the way out. A Queensbridge native, Nas grew up in a densely populated housing project – all around him, stories were playing out 24/7.

With no shortage of inspiration, his creative juices flowed with an effortlessness as sweet as the end-result rhymes. The same Long Island City blocks had produced Roxanne Shanté and Marley Marl – the words “fertile breeding ground” come to mind. But Nas would ultimately outshine these pioneering talents.

Riding expert production from DJ Premier, Large Professor and others, heavy beats set atop jazz- and funk-sampling melodies that expedited accessibility, Nas’ wordplay entertains as effectively as it educates. Frequently he refers to younger years – both One Time 4 Your Mind and Halftime recall experiences as a 10-year-old.

Memory Lane is nostalgic yet cemented in the (then) present, and also throws ahead to an unseen future. “My duration’s infinite,” he claims, simultaneously implying lineage with the rap game’s greats: “I drop the ancient manifested hip hop.” It’s a boast of timelessness that would ring true.

Yet Illmatic failed to immediately engage with the commercial rap market. Critical success came easier: several publications labelled it a vital release. And time’s done right by Illmatic, as nowadays tracks like N.Y. State of Mind and The World Is Yours are as synonymous with the early- to mid-90s east coast scene as anything by The Notorious B.I.G. or Wu-Tang Clan. The latter cut would be even sampled by Jay-Z on his 1996 debut LP, Reasonable Doubt.

Life Is Good… but it couldn’t have gone that way without Illmatic.

Mike Diver
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