Turntable Tuesday: Nas’ Illmatic
Though we spend most of our time in the music section writing about new material, Turntable Tuesday allows us to look back, and look closely at some captivating albums in our catalog. This week’s column hones in on Nas’ Illmatic as it approaches its 20th anniversary on April 19.
Reading about Illmatic doesn’t stray that far from reading about Shakespeare. Internal and compounded rhymes, assonance, enjambment—it doesn’t hurt to have some literary vocab to understand the power of Nas’ punch, but it’s not necessary to understand his impact. After being courted by MC Serch to sign with Columbia, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones went into the studio with the crack team of Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and DJ Premier to record what would become the opus of the boom-bap era.
“I don’t know how to start this shit,” Nas says on “New York State of Mind.” It’s not Dylan-style filler. At the age of 19, Nas was learning on the fly, taking in the rules of recording as he laid down a landmark text of his own. With the hall of fame of New York 90’s rap guiding the way, Nas posted ten tracks of flawless rhyming, on-the-corner stories, and the confines of Queensbridge, his childhood home and the largest public housing compound in North America.
Like the album’s cover suggests, Queensbridge life has imprinted itself into Nas’ head at a young age, carving out the worldview expressed on Illmatic. It’s raw, ghetto-documenting music that traps hard without falling into the trappings of gangsta rap, like the five seasons of The Wire condensed into 39 minutes of music.
Though I could spend days gorging Illmatic‘s rhyming patterns, I’ll suffice with an example from the Pete Rock-produced “The World Is Yours.”
“I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi til I’m charged
Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin
To hold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement
Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with”
For the suburban moms of the world, let’s slow down. Rap is structured in bars, represented in each individual line here. Each bar takes up a measure and, like a jazz solo, a single verse usually comes out to sixteen bars.
Nas has an uncanny ability to dissolve this structure, streaming his language from one line into the next, like Neo to the guiding, artificial laws of rap. Listening to the first two bars of “The World Is Yours,” it’s almost impossible to tell where Bar 1 ends and Bar 2 begins. Of course, Nas’ impeccable flow and internal patterns, rhyming Dom P with Ghandi within Bar 1, helps ease this enjambment.
According to Nas, Illmatic means “Supreme ill. It’s as ill as ill gets. That shit is a science of everything ill.” Though the album’s sales didn’t represent the science immediately, by 1996, Illmatic earned Gold, with Platinum coming late in 2001. But more impressive is the lasting influence of the record: its (almost) undisputed status as the best rap LP ever made, its impressive critical following, its recent #1 ranking atop the Village Voice’s “Most NYC Albums Ever,” and the unknown number of emcees and hip-hop heads whose brains have been ingrained with its lyrics. Twenty years later, Illmatic shines as brightly as a classic as the day it was written.