I hold the very uncontroversial opinion that Illmatic, the debut album by Queens rapper Nas, is the greatest rap album ever made. In celebration of Illmatic's 20th birthday today, here a couple of reasons why it's truly the greatest ever, just in case you're unconvinced (or if you've never heard it before).
WARNING: The tracks I've posted here have strong language. It is hip-hop, after all.
1. The Production
The production on Illmatic falls into the sweet spot between the Wu-Tang Clan's hard-hitting grit and A Tribe Called Quest's laid-back jazz. The music is lush but uncomplicated. There's just a heavy beat over a bass line and a couple of atmospheric samples, repeated for about four minutes until Nas is finished with what he has to say. These tracks are perfect backdrops for Nas to read his rhymes over, because more than on any other rap album I've heard, they paint a vivid sonic portrait of inner city ambience (in Nas's case, the ambience of the Queensbridge projects).
2. The Lyrics
Instead of problematically promoting gangsta life like NWA, or spouting politically radical lyrics like Public Enemy, Nas takes another route in his lyrics and gives a deeply personal and realistic perspective on life in the New York City projects during the '90s. While there are expected references to getting high, getting drunk, and even Scarface, Nas's lyrics have an existential and fatalistic bent that's very unusual for someone who was so young. Lines such as "Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain" from "NY State of Mind" come off as much wiser than Nas's 20 years at the time of recording.
3. There are (almost) no guest rappers
There's nothing wrong with a rapper bringing in friends to lay down some verses on their solo album, but sometimes there are so many voices on one album that it ceases to be a singular vision (Dr. Dre's The Chronic might as well be Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg's The Chronic). Nas maintains Illmatic's singular vision by handling nearly all of the verses on the album himself. The sole exception is the opening verse on "Life's a Bitch," which is delivered so masterfully by AZ that he nearly blows Nas out of the water.
4. Its Brevity
For some reason, when a CD has an 80-minute capacity, a ton of hip-hop artists feel like they need to make albums that fill up every second of the disc. Great artists like the Notorious B.I.G. and OutKast have fallen into this trap, releasing albums that are needlessly 70-plus minutes. What makes Illmatic so refreshing by comparison is how short and lean it is for a hip-hop album, with just 10 tracks in 40 minutes and uncluttered by pointless sketches (I'm looking at you, De La Soul). Speaking of sketches...
5. There are (almost) no sketches
You could cut down the running time for most hip-hop albums by about 30 percent if you remove all of the sketches wedged in between songs, but "The Genesis" from Illmatic is one of the few hip-hop sketch tracks that I wouldn't excise (another is Wu-Tang's torture sketch, of course). As the opening track to the album, "The Genesis" serves as a brief mood piece to put the listener right into the album's urban atmosphere. As soon as you hit play and hear that train rattling, you're right there in the middle of Queens.
Best Track: "One Love"
Most Underrated Track: "Represent"
If you don't think Illmatic is the greatest rap album ever, what do you think is? Let us know in the comments section!