NAS Illmatic Album 23rd Year Anniversary

Have you ever sat and listened to Led Zeppelin II or Appetite For Destruction and wondered how actual human beings put those songs together? What epiphanies went down so that this one amazing riff could careen into this other amazing riff? That’s Illmatic. On “N.Y. State Of Mind,” before he starts his first verse, we hear Nas — 19 or 20 when he recorded the thing — mutter, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then: “Rappers, I monkey-flip ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kicking / Musician, inflicting composition.” He did know how to start this shit. I don’t know if Nas was mad about Jay making a hot song out of his hot line, but he shouldn’t have been, because he had so many hot lines on Illmatic. In a single verse on “N.Y. State Of Mind,” within the space of one verse, he gives us “Never put me in your box if the shit eat tapes” and “I never sleep cuz sleep is the cousin of death.” Within seconds of each other. Those are instantly iconic, career-defining lines, and you don’t have time to recover from one before the next arrives. He delivers lines like that with such unflappable cool, never betraying the slightest hint that he’s amazed by the shit coming out of his mouth, never falling out of the beat’s pocket, never leaving his heavy-lidded trance state. Illmatic isn’t one of those rap albums that made its mark by coloring outside the lines and changing people’s conception of what rap was; it’s not Nation Of Millions or 3 Feet High And Rising or Stankonia. Instead, it’s a case of a superlative stylist taking a previously-established sound and doing it extremely fucking well, so well that nobody ever managed to equal it on a pure-fundamentals level.

It’s also one of those albums where everything just came together, where enough talented people had a similar enough vision that they could all get together and execute it. The album has the greatest-possible assemblage of production talent at a point where the production pool in New York was at its most fertile, all doing some of the best work of their lives: Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, the then-unknown L.E.S. All of them understand the album’s immersive deep-groove vibe, and all of them ease into it with complete assurance. The basslines alone are worthy of essays: The plummy stand-up lope on “Halftime,” the forbidding slow-motion strut on “N.Y. State Of Mind,” the loopy wobble on “One Time 4 Your Mind.” Nas is young enough to attack those tracks with a deceptive sort of energy, but his voice has that husky weariness to it, and he doesn’t spend much time dating himself with topical references or nods to rap-delivery trends. (On Ready To Die, released a few months later, Biggie is much more concerned with reflecting his moment, and that might be why Ready To Die did way better commercially but Illmatic enjoys a slightly more vaunted reputation today.) The album is famously short — just under 40 minutes — and it does everything it could ever need to do in that time without ever diluting things with a single ill-considered musical move.

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