Why I Was Wrong About Illmatic


Like many of you, the first time I heard Nasty Nas was through his stirring performance on Main Source’s seminal “Live At The BBQ”, but it was initial exposure to “Halftime” on a local radio show that really got me amped. I was so impressed with the track that I eventually went on to describe it as “The Best Brag Rap Song of The 90’s”: “The lyrics are a ‘Good Combination’ of declarations of poetic superiority, explanations of his daily operations, product name checks, witty punchlines, casual blasphemy and a healthy dose of Eff The Police sentiment. What more could a rap fan ask for?”

It would be another two long years before the Illmatic vinyl was in my grasp, and all that rap fanatics had to whet our appetites in the meantime was that brolic guest spot on MC Serch’s “Back To The Grill” and the addictive “Human Nature” flip of the superior “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” single. Yet despite the anticipation – or perhaps because of it – my first couple of spins of Nasir’s debut proved to be a little underwhelming. Coming off the back of the raw energy from his previous appearances, much of the record seemed too laid back and reflective to my ears, which were thirsty for more talk of “waving automatic guns at nuns” and less street corner wisdom about buying lotto tickets instead of 40’s. It was also surprisingly short, clocking-in at a paltry 40 minutes and only featuring seven new songs.

In retrospect, these complaints are largely irrelevant since the album now stands as one of the pinnacles of an almost forgotten era in New York hip-hop, in addition to serving as a testament to the abilities of a carefully selected group of producers at the height of their powers. Not to mention that the relentless mining of lines from Illmatic accapellas for hooks and chorus scratches have made this record a blueprint for traditional Queens rap ever since.

Listening to Illmatic again with a fresh set of ears revealed some details I may have overlooked way back when. ‘NY State of Mind’ remains as one of the greatest rap songs ever laid onto magnetic tape. “Life’s A Bitch” is Grown Man Rap that’s over a decade ahead of it’s time. The final verse of “One Love” paints the most vivid visual picture since Rakim’s astral projections from “Follow The Leader”. “Represent” hasn’t aged as well, coming off as somewhat of a token “hardcore” song with it’s cliched shout hook and excessive name-dropping of local tough guys (although the beat is still top notch), while “One Time 4 Da Mind” remains as the hidden jewel of the record, allowing The Villain to kick a vintage Rec Room technique as he boasts of shooting his way out of ma dukes over a deceptively simple Large Pro track. What may have been initially disappointing to my unsophisticated teenage mindset in 1994 now stands tall as a timeless B-Boy document which has forever cemented Queensbridge in the history books as “the place where stars are born”.

Note: This was something I wrote late last year for GetOnDown‘s Nas re-issue, but it was never used.

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23 Comments so far
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Word to thst

Comment by Clive 04.19.13 @


Comment by Clive 04.19.13 @

ah robbie, say it aint so

Comment by Charlie Birdman III (@rlydoe) 04.19.13 @

if you go back and listen to Nastradamus too, it’s a dope record, just wrong for the times. It really had some great songs in there.

Comment by TumbleWEED 04.19.13 @

illmatic is def top 5 freshmen albums of all time top album of its era its the paid an full of its time hands down, i always get shit for saying its better then reasonable dout but thats my ear selection

Comment by cozy 04.19.13 @

cozy, who gives you grief for “Illmatic” over “Reasonable Doubt”? to me that’s no fucking content… “Illmatic” versus “Ready To Die” is a different matter, tough to call… Just because “RD” is Jay’s only half fucking TOLERABLE album doesn’t make it ‘great’ by a long shot.

Comment by Black Donald Goines 04.19.13 @

I hated/ignored Illmatic when it debuted. I was too busy rocking “Midnight Maurauders,” “Return of The Boom Bap” and the entire Hieroglyphics catalogue up to that point. I still copped and “put it on ice” until I was ready to give it an unbiased listen and I’ve loved it ever since. “Memory Lane” was the first song that grabbed me. “I rap for listeners, blunt-heads, fly ladies and prisoners……”

Comment by Bug 04.19.13 @

I had Illmatic nearly 6 months before it dropped i played that tdk tape till it popped. Still it remains one of my favorite albums of all time. The production team was beyond incredible.

Comment by DJ MIKE NICE 04.19.13 @

I remember the day it came out, my friend bought it and I bought E-40 The Federal. We got into a huge fight over which tape we’d play first, he won and I proceeded to call Illmatic wack out of spite. I thought dude was a follower because he’d blindly buy anything the Source gave 4 mics or better.

Add that to the fact that everyone was playing it non stop for a year straight, I naturally dismissed it.

Wasn’t until a couple years later when I got into it and remains one of my favorite records of all time. Never gets old.

Comment by Caesar 04.19.13 @

Why I Was Wrong About Illmatic http://t.co/IKuFQcLDKt

Comment by DJGH aka R@$#0D (@djgreenhornet) 04.19.13 @

Robbie, that was some grown man, Timberland boat shoes type shit you said, lol.

@ TumbleWEED:
On point about Nastradamus. It’s the only Nas joint I never bought. I’ll have to cop it one of these days to “keep the cipher complete”.

Comment by oskamadison 04.19.13 @

It’s only right that I was born to use mics…

ILLmatic is the real BLUEprint.

Comment by Kyu 04.19.13 @

Remember buying it from tempest in Birmingham, really summed up want I wanted to hear at the time and the best album of that period along with o.c word life.

Comment by Sg 04.20.13 @


Comment by swordfish 04.20.13 @

Illmatic is better than Reasonable Doubt. Although Ready to Die and 36 Chambers are close…All classics. The lyrics on Illmatic are very Rakim-esque in the way that they were way before their times. Nastrodamus is fucking terrible though, can’t co-sign that one.

Comment by BIGSPICE 04.20.13 @

Seeing Mike’s comment above, and other ones in the past few years, it seems a lot of people (industry related or journalists) had Illmatic 6 months to a year plus before it was released. How come it was never bootlegged? Also, looking back, I think Nas pushed a lot of rappers to try a lot harder because his superiority at the time must have seemed almost effortless and very intimidating. I’m not joking.

Comment by silent minority 04.20.13 @

Also, although I listen a lot less now, all those rappers from that era were so advanced lyrically for their age. I mean Nas, Prodigy, whoever, they seemed wiser than their years (on their music at least).

Comment by silent minority 04.20.13 @

@ Silent Minority: why bootleg something of dubious street value (at the time)?

on young man’s lyricism of the time, I agree 100%. When lyricism was valued, dude’s put in work. How the fuck could Prodigy have become so stupid over the years, compared to where he was? Hell, you can say the same thing even for Jedi Mind Tricks or Kool G. Rap (compare the three DJ Polo albums to everything he’s done since) or … the list goes on!

Not that Rakim needed to ever do more than those first four LPs but even he lost his lyrical inspiration after Eric took the dookie ropes away.

Comment by Black Donald Goines 04.20.13 @

@Black Donald Goines – Co-sign.
Robbie.. Does this mean that you have to also reassess your opinion of ‘Vagina Diner’, as well?

Comment by Fosterakahunter 04.21.13 @

@Fosterakahunter: I was a fan of Akinyele’s debut from day dot. Ain’t a damn thing changed.

Comment by Robbie 04.21.13 @

i kinda felt the same the beats all together gave it a laid back melancholy vibe but i still had it on repeat for NY state of mind, Halftime and the killer 2nd verse on memory lane.

Comment by RB 04.21.13 @

Once an idea is put out there the majority tends to roll with it. Illmatic ,at the time, was hailed as the most anticipated album. So there was hype built up around it already. There were other good Hip Hop albums out around that time also. I had a dub of it. I didn’t buy Illmatic until years later. I felt like if i didn’t have that “classic” people would think I was committing a Hip Hop crime. It’s Hip Hop’s Thriller. It’s put together well. You can tell he worked on it for a while. Especially since the demo’s started circling around. It’s a polished effort. It’s a small collection of good songs. It’s basically an EP. It’s just really good. I’m not trying to shut down anyone’s belief on how great they think it is. This is just my opinion. I’ve felt like this and will continue this way about Illmatic.

Comment by Greg Philpott 04.22.13 @

Nas’s verse on Live @ The BBQ is without doubt the best debut verse i’ve heard from a rapper and Illmatic was amazing from start to finish, i might have had doubts before it but was blown away by
the lyricism and great collection of beats. Ak’s debut was tight too and deserved more praise! Damn i miss the 90s big time – too many classics and nowadays we ain’t got any!!

Comment by big braveheart 04.22.13 @

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