Top 10 Songs on Illmatic
By The Staff | 4 July 2008
Clay already killed my idea for this blurb with his indignant, hilarious pontification on the merits of The Gin Blossoms, so I’m left to write about the track I hold in higher esteem than everyone else on the staff sans name-calling, which makes my task exponentially more challenging, as I now have to craft a real argument for Illmatic’s A- student without calling out my colleagues for being the stupid jerks that they are.
Premier’s beat defiantly bounces along with an sense of inevitability that serves as a razorblade with which Nas proceeds to slice through cushy suburban realities to reveal a dystopia subsumed by crime and everyday shootouts. Redundant, sure, because Nas spends much of the album describing his universe in impressive detail, and “shit is rough” isn’t exactly the most high-minded of concepts, but it is another cog in the greatest lyrical performance by an MC ever, and that holds true for every glorious line here, in addition to being the most justified arrogance Nas has ever committed to record.
So I concede, I guess, that this isn’t the conceptual phenomenality of “One Love” or the breathtakingly panoramic outlook of “The World Is Yours.” It’s shit-talking at its pinnacle, but shit-talking all the same. But scrutiny reveals it to be the second finest incarnation of Nas’s chameleonic flow (behind “NY State Of Mind,” which has the album’s best everything): a breathless masterstroke of arduous precision; listening to it carefully reveal lingo and bravado is something like I imagine watching Bosch paint the “Garden Of Earthly Delights”’s Hell panel would be like. Yeah, it’s chaos, but look at the use of color!
9. “The Genesis”
“Quit fucking around and be a man.”
Rarely has the indulgence of a rap album’s introductory track meant so much within the context of a record, let alone coming in the form of that macho chest-poke of the line above. The sonic makings of this track are worn, true, and maybe trite: a railroad rumble, young Nasty on a Main Source track in the back, a burbling, faded beat, Nas’ final echoing statement of purpose: “Representing, it’s illmatic.” But it’s that imperative demand up top that becomes the definitive mandate of the ensuing artistic statement. Illmatic is, above anything else, a narrative of spiritual awakening; it is angry, yes, but only in the manner of a young man of impossible intelligence looking around the world, as an adult, and finding that all the worst suppositions he’d had as a precocious child (yep: that cover) were true. Nas was, at the time of Illmatic, still an idealist. In following releases, we would see those ideals ravaged by disappointment, until they would ultimately mutate into a purpose for attack. Nas’s story has turned into an angry, lonely one, but here, in his earliest moments, there was hope; he felt the burden of responsibility coming down on his shoulders and proclaimed his readiness for it. As a portrait of a mind at this phase, Illmatic remains an object of beauty in absolute form, set off on this mandate with an exact plan in nine parts. This track, then, is merely as its title claims, but crucially so, given the quality of what followed.
8. “One Time 4 Your Mind”
Self-assuredness dripping like perspiration, Nas— over-enunciating to the point that every syllable feels its own epic proclamation—takes a leisurely stroll through Central Park; the news headlines the following morning, in addition to countless, more detailed retellings in the form of non-fiction bestsellers and documentaries in the years to come, will depict the death and destruction that he leaves in his wake. But Nas won’t notice any of this. Not because of obliviousness due to his infatuation with his immeasurable level of miraculousness or cold-blooded difference or indifference, though those would be perfectly acceptable reasons. No, you see, as proven on “One Time 4 Your Mind,” Nas will not be concerning himself with all of this clamor because our feeble language is completely incomprehensible to his blessed, foreign ears, and as a result utterly inconsequential, no more than terrible rumpus. It would appear Nas is speaking English over Large Professor’s plodding backdrop, but it is, in fact, highly sophisticated flyspeak that, if listened to repeatedly, will cause one’s head to explode like the aliens in Mars Attacks. But in a good way.
Which is why when your face lit up with childish delight upon first listen to this sublime edict, you audibly asked the empty interior of your car “the fuck is this?” It’s inhuman is what it is.
7. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”
Corny title, but:
“I see dark streets, hustlin’ brothers who keep the same rank / Pumpin’ for somethin’, some’ll prosper, some fail / Judges hangin’ niggaz, uncorrect bails, for direct sales / My intellect prevails from a hangin cross with nails / I reinforce the frail, with lyrics that’s real / Word to Christ, a disciple of streets, trifle on beats / I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace.”
Ah, the birth of a Christ complex. Cute. But whereas today that manifests itself in a cover with Nas’ back scourged, just blatant shock tactic, here Nas prods at the idea in a way that’s actually interesting and provocative. Through the course of his reverie we see the movement of his thought process. “Memory Lane” is actually a trip down the path of Nasty’s own development into Nasir, rap savior: from how his craft started outside of school walls (“I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie / Jungle survivor, fuck who’s the liver / My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer / Sentence begins indented.. with formality”) to its development into the poetry of the streets as Nas ran around with dealers until Nas comes to a point where he’s questioning his own cred and then validating it (“I rap divine, God, check the prognosis, is it real or showbiz? / My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses / Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real”) before he hits a writer’s block. Here’s the pause prior to the decision: Nas says fuck the game, he’s here to change it. Word to JC and all that. For a song that seems so unassuming, Primo’s beat on some feel-good let’s-chill-and-recall shit, “Memory Lane” is actually an audacious mission statement written in the form of nostalgia discovering its own worthlessness in the face of a better future.
6. “It Ain’t to Hard to Tell”
Superficially, it almost seems like Large Professor has too much going on: samples from Kool & the Gang, Mountain, Whatanuts, Stanly Clarke, the Blue Jays, Power of Zeus, and Michael Jackson? From “Human Nature”? Just tell ‘em that, right?
On the other hand, if Illmatic is indeed the metaphorical bridge between oldschool and everything else, Large Professor is eating himself. “The Genesis” quotes Large Professor’s “Live at the Barbecue” (where Nas made his debut); Large Professor (the youngest of the four big name producers on Illmatic) swallows memories like that one whole, allowing oldschool hip hop to simmer in the carefully and cohesively produced Illmatic aesthetic that was crucial to defining post-_Illmatic_ hip hop. Even Nas’s cadence seems to revert to generalized pre-_Illmatic_ flow, flitting with his Queensbridge heritage while simultaneously looking forward. That’s part of the reason why Illmatic is so Important, across the board, right? It isn’t the other end, I mean; it’s the transformation happening right in front of you. And if “It Ain’t To Hard to Tell” isn’t the best track on the album, it’s the most successful at defining that transformation, throwing hip hop through the rabbit hole and arriving on the other side as something whole. Maybe the most successful song period, since even the much loved 36 Chambers worked more like a bomb that refused to reassemble the broken pieces it left in its wake. Which is why I’d say, even if you’re kind of underwhelmed by this self-props track after a whole album of incredibly dense lyricism, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” may be the only track on the album where it doesn’t matter what Nas the rapper is rapping. What matters is what Nas the human/artist means by the time this song (and this album) is done.
Which is why the “Human Nature” riff sounds like it’s laughing in the background, right? Because, let’s face it: Nas is right. After the nine other tracks of Illmatic, why bother further cementing his legacy? He’s already got you hooked. And that’s why I love “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”: it is simultaneously the most profound and most lazy way to end an album ever. Which: awesome.
5. “One Love”
The phrase “one love” has become pablum in our day. For Nas it’s probably the most profound statement that he’s laid to tape. Here we have three verses told with different voices: the first two are written in the form of letters that are effortlessly rich and natural, conversational lines that just happen to rhyme. In the third Nas enters into a more inner monologue (or so it would seem) and Q-Tip filters the Heath Brothers sample in and out to signify as much. Both letters end with promises of violence for the sake of one love. Nas follows this with his account of meeting a 12 year old criminal. Nas tries to drop wisdom on the kid and the kid responds with a “cold-blooded” laugh “so foul.” Nas’ anecdote turns into another letter at the end, “Keep an eye out for Jake shorty, what / One love.”
The hook is an almost atonal chant of “one love, one love, one love.” It’s a resignation simultaneous with the conflicts that catalyze and crystallize some bonds while shattering others. One love becomes the universal condition only insomuch as everyone must endure the shit that creates its necessity. Pain and animosity are constants, so the only answer is for love also to be a constant. The perpetuation of violence is inevitable, inequality and injustice controllable only to the point where civic community within the city stops and Jake shorty’s soul begins. Nas’ writing documents “one love” as an idea that’s very real but also very heavy, a love that’s covered by blood and tears—he’s on some Graham Greene shit here. The whispered nothings of this love are threats to protect one’s own while peace becomes a state of mind existent above current events, so the understated beat lays out an eerie calm underneath the churning of Nas’ flow. Nas tells shorty, “Mistakes happen.” In order to be redeemed, one must feel the desperate need for redemption, and also only then can one become redemptive of others. Morality becomes a condition of unconditional love; when strife is the social rule, unity becomes a question mark: one what? One love.
And one great rap song.
This song—this album—is dated in the best way possible. It’s a perfect blend of the faded vinyl classic and the perpetually fresh block party jam. Let’s be real: you couldn’t really get away with calling yourself a “Nike-head” in ’08, but saying, “I wear chains that excite the Feds” is never going to stop being sweet. “Halftime” is a head bobber of the first order, because there’s no minimum requisite to enjoying it.
Even my inveterately wack friend, Joe, says, “It’s a rapper who’s actually rapping…instead of selling sneakers.” Whatever the fuck that means. Because true classics are for everybody, and Illmatic’s rightful designation as stone cold fucking classic is now completely beyond dissent.
That’s why it’s not “The Illest” or simply “Ill,” it’s Illmatic. Half stab at slang, half self-aware goof. This is a block party. Nas wants us all to celebrate his summer-sun-soaked-blacktop hotness with him. Acknowledge his status first (Ill), then come on in and grab an Old E.
And then there’s those sleigh bells tracking the beat right from the opening, then there’s those horns that ebb back into the beat under the long clear note loping down its slow descent, half noir, half joyous. There’s so much here that any attempt to quantify the individual elements does damage to the effortless inclusive environment this track creates. So just press fuckin’ play already.
3. “The World is Yours”
Take ‘em to the bridge: funny for a line loaded with so much ambition, “I’m out for Presidents to represent me” is as effortless a hook there is. Jay-Z recognized as much, using it for a classic of his own (“Dead Presidents II,” from
2. “Life’s a Bitch”
Wherein Anthony Cruz renders his next ten years in the rap game completely dissatisfying by submitting an existential tirade that asserts some of the most direct, poignant fears generated by living in a society that revolves around status and bank account numbers. To paraphrase: we accumulate possessions and assets with a terrifying direness that frequently overwhelms life’s most important elements to the point where cash becomes fulfillment in and of itself, and the pursuit of it consumes one’s reality. Revelation: you’re not taking your Caddy with you when you’re in a box, and furthermore, those leather seats don’t much care whose butt is in them. Scary shit, huh?
LES’s beat implies as much, its somber keys like the lilting twilight accompanied by flickering streetlights after a long day of exhausting pursuits, the time when it’s best to spark up in the company of comrades, which is thoroughly encouraged by the mission statement of a chorus. Because that haze is the only method of forgetting the first fifteen hours of that day will never return; that necessary labors are lonely.
In comparison to AZ’s frantic nihilism, Nas’s verse sounds outright uplifting, as his cynicism is now coupled with a relatively sweeter outlook (”‘Stead of saying ‘fuck tomorrow’ / That buck that bought a bottle coulda struck the lotto”). It’s “money-orientated” hopefulness, sure, but a slight flicker on the horizon nonetheless, a comforting blanket of quiet optimism in the face of a harsh reality. For all its articulate verbosity, the track’s conclusion contains one of music’s greatest, most knowing, wordless moments, as a lonely sax ushers our misanthropic, warped protagonists off. Dense, wispy smoke wafts across an empty stage, and we’re all staring blankly, attempting to process the sobering information that has so rapidly assaulted our grey matter. Nearly fifteen years later that palpable sense of social and spiritual illness is still reverberating: a blight hanging over our heads like some horrid tear in the sky, perfectly photographed through the eyes of discontented youth.
1. “NY State of Mind”
The boom-clap drums clip, like Primo drums do, physically spare but sonically huge; that sonar call tickling your ears at the track’s top end and hooks heralds something huge, and the way Primo fades in the piano line toward the moment Nas begins spitting = 95%, if we’re gonna drop a rating on this sort of thing. But, really? let’s not. Parsing in a close textual way what happens after those sonar pings drop out and Nas begins to ride the piano line is something I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read; the lyrics are here, they exist on their own and you don’t need me to explain that they’re, you know, “great.” Besides—and this is just me being selfish—I don’t want to dig in that deep. Let’s just listen to this track—cue it, now—in a sitting; let the words spill out in measured, serpentine cadence over the course of five minutes, let the beat rest its urgent tone and then echo appreciatively back while the emcee catches his breath in between these two verses.
Yeah: two. Apparently the original cover for Illmatic was Nas with Christ in a headlock, which would be funny enough if the alternative weren’t so apropos to the work within the sleeve. What that child saw becomes what this young man says, and I use the term “young man” not because I’m an old one yet but because this is absolutely the work of a man coming to terms with the details of his youth. Accordingly, following the mission statement of “The Genesis,” the first lyrical detonation that occurs contains within it all the peripheral characters, the hurt, the artistic longing and youthful lust of adolescence and dispossessed rage; and accordingly, Nas drops two raps that feel on first listen and each subsequent one large-minded on a scale like Louis Kahn, and, though grandiose, etched like the landscape of the brain, a fingerprint, DNA. That is, after all, what shocks about this emceeing: the overwhelming intellectual development and moral certainty on display, mountainous in its assuredness of how and why it fits into a larger schema of post-war American art. What “The Genesis” sets up—an imperative of artistic creation as manifested through autobiography—is realized here in fluidity: the clammer and cacophony of life, come clad as a battle rap. It achieves, in a track, everything a debut album could hope to; it sounds like nineteen years worth of thought, wrapped to bursting, rapturous with words.