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Nas – Illmatic

August 21, 2008

New York MC Nas’ debut album Illmatic is often hailed by critics as well as fans as one of the best hip hop albums of all time for a reason. In that way, it strikes a chord with the critics because little to nothing in mainstream rap at the time was as intelligent or well produced, and it garnered as many fans as it did because it was probably the catchiest, most smooth listen the hip hop industry had ever heard. Both sides of the coin play themselves out equally importantly. The album is loaded with catchy hooks, loops and beats, which are bolstered by the now legendary foursome of rap producers DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip. They treat the samples with care, making most of the album sound simultaneously pure and nostalgic (as the cover suggests) with their hazy jazz productions. The backbeats range from dark compositions (N.Y. State of Mind, Represent) to lighter jazz pieces (Life’s a Bitch, Memory Lane), and both modes work effectively. The performance of these producers alone could have been enough to make this album a classic, but Nas remains the centerpiece of the album, with a smooth flow and consistently contemplative lyrics throughout. He mostly raps about what it is like to live in the ghetto, but he does it with sophistication and care, and even when he indulges in self promotion, the results are cool and composed, as opposed to the outwardly ridiculous trash talking of most gangster rap. Even on the rare occasions that the beats slip up short of excellence (One Time 4 Your Mind), Nas keeps his words and delivery solid enough to keep each song solid. But what makes the album particularly surprising is how equally matched the DJs are with the MC. Each song has at least a few memorable hooks, beats, instrumentations, or details, and several instantly quotable rhymes. Leaving the album at a scant forty minutes with no more than ten songs was a smart move too; the brevity leaves the listener that much more fixated on what is there, and thirsting for more. Latter efforts would not be as popular or influential, but at least for the span of Illmatic the world belongs to Nas.

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