Thursday, January 15, 2004


still ill

Holy f%#in' s#@! - Illmatic is ten years old now. Goddamn, do I feel old. Yet, what speaks volumes about Nas' talent at this early point in his career is how un-dated the album feels. Illmatic rocks my iPod on the regular and oddly, it feels both like a hip-hop LP from a different era (which, of course, it was) but does feel anachronistic in the same way as Public Enemy or Run DMC can. It's not just Illmatic influenced hundreds of MCs that followed - the album stands as a testament to what happens when talented rappers team up with talented producers and produce a clean, simple project (this CD is less than 45 minutes - think about that) with no filler, no ego preening, but just 11 incredible songs. It's the veritible definition of "leaving people wanting more." (Alas, Nas gave us more but not necessarily more genius material. Like Jay-Z said, a one-hot-album-in-every-ten-year-average isn't much to crow about.... Ok, two hot albums in ten years - I did like God's Son).

Favorite Song: I've gone back and forth on this over the years. It used to be "One Love" (see below), then briefly, "Memory Lane" but now, I'm pretty set on "NY State of Mind," mostly because it boasts so many incredible lines.

Least favorite song: Folks will think I'm tripping, but I never could get into "Life's a Bitch." I just found the production far too syrupy, especially in comparison to the rest of the album. Even Large Professor looping up Michael Jackson (on "It Ain't Hard to Tell") is preferable to sitting through the saccharin sound of the Gap Band.

Best lines (like Pringles, you can't just pick one):
    Rappers I monkey flip 'em/with the funky rhythm/I be kickin'
    Musician/inflicting composition/of pain
    I'm like Scarface/sniffing cocaine
    holding a M-16/see with the pen I'm extreme
    -"NY State of Mind"

    I ain't the type of brother made for you to start testing
    Give me a Smith & Wesson/I'll have ni**as undressing
    -"NY State of Mind"

    I'm living where the nights is jet black
    The fiends fight to get crack/I just max/I dream I can sit back
    and lamp like Capone/with drug scripts sewn
    or lead the luxury life/rings flooded with stones
    -"NY State of Mind" (you get the idea)

    I'm the young city bandit/hold myself down singlehanded
    For murder raps/I kick my thoughts alone/get remanded
    Born alone/die alone/no crew to keep my crown or throne
    I'm deep by sound alone/caved inside in a thousand miles from home
    -"The World Is Yours"

    I reminisce on park jams/my man was shot for his sheep coat
    Childhood lesson make me see him drop in my weed smoke.
    It's real/grew up in trife life/did times or white lines
    The hype vice/murderous nighttimes/and knife fights invite crimes
    -"Memory Lane"

Best Moment: Undoubtably, Nas achieves one of his greatest moments ever with the cinematic evocativeness of these lines from the third verse of "One Love":
    Then I rose/wiping the blunt's ash from my clothes
    then froze/only to blow the herb smoke through my nose

Best Production: For me, it's a toss-up between three songs. If you want some gritty, paranoia-induced heat, go with DJ Premier on "NY State of Mind." Primo also laces "Memory Lane" with just the right kind of nostalgia-inducing jazz loop. And Q-Tip kills it by being the first to mine the Heath Bros.' incredible "Smilin' Billy Suite" for "One Love."

I'd say more but frankly, the best essay I've seen written on this LP comes via my friend and colleague Hua Hsu, who penned an amazing essay on Illmatic for my book, Classic Material (act like you knew and cop it if you didn't).