It Ain’t Hard to Tell: The Legacy of ‘Illmatic’

[19 July 2009]

By Quentin B. Huff

Which hip-hop album deserves the honor of being called the greatest of all time? In a genre so heavily motivated by competition—among artists and fans alike—there isn’t a consensus but there are certainly a number of viable contenders. A few that come to mind are: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, the Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (some folks would choose A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders instead). And that’s not even a full list.

The guidelines for choosing hip-hop’s greatest album(s) generally strike me as abstract and amorphous. It’s a fluid process, one of intuition and precarious readings of hip-hop’s musical tea leaves while attempting to weigh ever-changing considerations such as the artist’s skills as an emcee, the hotness and longevity of the beats on an album, and the album’s overall impact. No doubt, nearly every hip-hop enthusiast has an opinion on this, even if it’s only to hate on other people’s selections, and most have personal favorites that, for any number of reasons, are near and dear to their hearts (you like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, right? Main Source’s Breaking Atoms?).

cover art



(Sony; US: 19 Apr 1994)

One album generates a bit more love than most, and garners more agreement about its place at the summit of hip-hop achievement. This album by itself launched its star into the hip-hop pantheon occupied by lyrical titans like Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G. Rap. That album is Nas’ Illmatic, perhaps the most important debut LP in rap history and definitely the most important entry in Nas’ discography.

But I have to be honest. My relationship with Illmatic has always been tenuous. I remember the buzz surrounding its release, and I’ve watched it grow in stature and prestige over the years, but I’ve never been able to say I love it or that I’ve played it nonstop. When I first heard it, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. There were a lot of albums I liked more, not only Public Enemy’s aforementioned Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet and releases from A Tribe Called Quest, but also Big Daddy Kane’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing, MC Lyte’s Eyes on This, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, and LL Cool J’s Bigger & Deffer and Mama Said Knock You Out

Nevertheless, I kept returning to Illmatic, partially out of a need to understand what I was missing, and partially because something new would grab me with each listen. I still don’t completely love the album, but I absolutely respect it. I suppose the upside to my experience is that I never measured Nas’ career against the gold standard of his debut. I haven’t felt those pangs of disappointment when a Nas album—like, say, Nastradamus—fell short of Illmatic‘s fabled promise.

Recently, I made the mistake of telling a friend, who’s an Illmatic fan, that I listen to Nas’ Hip Hop is Dead and Untitled albums way more than I listen to Illmatic. I might’ve also mentioned that I’m not really into the Illmatic tracks “Life’s a B*tch”, “One Love”, and “Memory Lane”, and that I don’t like the percussion elements in some of the beats—too flat and tin-sounding. My friend was flabbergasted. That’s how deep it runs with Illmatic. In some circles, anything less than total enthusiasm for its track list and production is blasphemy.

I recognize how much of an achievement the album is, even though it’s not one of my favorites. What’s so good about it? Why do hip-hoppers love it so much?

Books in the 33 1/3 series spotlight phenomenal albums. Through intriguing but concise analysis, this series strives to illuminate the riddle of what makes “great” albums so “great”, exploring the conditions that give rise to specific releases and the insight to be gleaned from the finished product’s lyrical and musical content. Matthew Gasteier’s 33 1/3 book, simply entitled Illmatic, puts the album’s greatness into words. Relying on interviews, a variety of source material, and lyrical interpretation, it also positions Nas the Emcee and Illmatic the Album into a larger cultural context.

Gasteier covers the usual ground of the album’s singular logistics: the short running time of its ten tracks (albums are usually a lot longer now, and often contain too many skits and segues); the lone guest appearance from AZ on “Life’s a B*tch” (nowadays, albums typically feature lots of guest stars); the album’s team of skilled producers in Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor (as opposed to the single deejay production format of yesteryear); and Nas’ seamless verses that continue Rakim’s tradition of multisyllabic rhyme schemes, internal rhymes, and alliteration.

But Illmatic is more than an individual emcee making an individual album. It’s a paradigm shift occurring at a precise musical moment. It’s an event. Gasteier captures this feeling quite well in his treatment of the album, helping to explain why Nas’ little ten-track album lyrically and musically elevated the rap game. This isn’t just a bunch of essays about why some guy thinks some album is dope, it’s an attempt to encapsulate that album’s importance to hip-hop, and ultimately to music as a whole. In fact, the author intentionally avoids overly personalizing his analysis by explicitly refusing to chalk up the album’s artistic weight to his own personal connection to it.

This approach suits Gasteier well, actually, because any number of albums might’ve helped someone through a tumultuous breakup or a rough financial patch, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify the work for classic status. Personal taste plays a role, however, as it usually does in matters of critique, even within a discipline as objective and well-balanced as music criticism (wink). For instance, Gasteier early on declares his belief that Nas is the greatest emcee of all time. I’m not saying it’s an outrageous claim—actually, I can sort of see the logic in it—but it does indicate a pro-Nas tendency and explains why the book’s analysis is heavier on positives than negatives, or why the book is perhaps a little too quick to explain away possible negatives and works a touch too hard to prove the virtues. 

One example of a quick dismissal is Gasteier’s discussion of the critique that Nas “never actually lived the life he raps about in his songs.” The response is twofold. First, he argues that Nas has provided so much insight in his rhymes over the course of his career that such critiques are rendered “useless”. Credibility is such a huge factor in hip-hop that I’m not sure the truth of Nas’ personal experiences, or lack thereof, can be so easily waived.

Second, he argues that Nas’ ability to tap into the communal experience, despite not experiencing it himself, could “enhance his own mythology”. Here, the author asserts that it’s an impressive feat to “absorb another’s reality” and convey it convincingly to someone who’s unfamiliar with it, to the point that they “form an emotional connection to the experience”. I’m not sure that’s the issue here. For me, it’s more impressive for Nas to convince people who are familiar with a particular lifestyle that he has lived it too, even if he hasn’t.

An outsider convincing another outsider? Novelists do that all the time. An outsider convincing an insider? Sounds like genius to me.

The Credibility Crown

The Credibility Crown

Although I didn’t get the impression that Gasteier found many similarities between Tupac and Nas, Tupac’s Me Against the World reminds me of Illmatic in terms of its mixture of introspection, controlled aggression, and reverence for the past.

Nas’ credibility issue spills over into the book’s brief discussion of Nas’ multifaceted output compared to Tupac Shakur’s. The discussion gives Nas the credibility crown between the two, claiming that Nas’ “authenticity of despair” edges out Tupac’s “relatively safe childhood”. It is posited that Tupac’s contradictions “often seemed like calculated positioning, with neither side revealing the true artist.” Interesting statement, right? And I can respect that, too, because it makes me think about the nature of contradictions and how they impact artistic output and integrity.

For Nas, though, the argument is that he seems to be believe in “both alternatives, because they exist around him.” I don’t get why Tupac, or any other rapper except maybe Rick Ross, can’t just believe what he’s saying and not have his contradictions be summed up as “calculated positioning”. I’m not sure why Tupac’s “despair” wouldn’t be as authentic as Nas’.

Setting this nitpick aside, Gasteier does a careful and thought provoking job of articulating Illmatic‘s power and resonance. In addition to Illmatic‘s minimalist approach, focusing on the textured, jazz-oriented beats and the vivid rhymes of a single emcee, Gasteier emphasizes the importance to the album of Nas’ upbringing in the Queensbridge projects, his crucial role on Illmatic as the consummate emcee, and the time period of the album’s release.

Interestingly, Gasteier does this in a format that’s cleverly similar in structure to the album itself: ten chapters (eight numbered ones plus an unnumbered preface and epilogue) beginning with a discussion of Gasteier’s immersion in hip-hop and culminating in Illmatic‘s continual presence in the late ‘90s-early 21st century portion of Nas’ career.

As the book lays it out, Queensbridge housing projects sits on the Westside of Queens, New York in Long Island City.  Gasteier’s account takes the time to layout the history of the area, along with the look and feel of it. There’s even a paragraph about the aerial view of the community that ties Queensbridge’s physical design to Nas’ remark that “each block is like a maze full of black rats trapped.” Nas’ upbringing is an enlightening facet of Illmatic‘s creation, a piece of the puzzle that looms in the background of the album’s legacy. That Queensbridge is home to hip-hop royalty like MC Shan, Tragedy, and Marly Marl is well known. His neighborhood exposed him to lessons from hip-hop luminaries and also gave him an awareness of hip-hop history.

There’s a strong “knowledge is power” argument here, wherein an artist’s musical palette and repertoire are expanded by being familiar with what’s already been done. There’s also Gasteier’s point that Nas’ ability to call upon this community reservoir of talent and experience contributed immensely to his development as an emcee. It shaped him and readied him for his opportunity to create a classic. Keep in mind that Nas wasn’t even 21 when he recorded the album, and yet his effort has been lauded as one of the best of the genre.  A little knowledge obviously goes a long way.

Another way to look at this is from the fan’s perspective. Gasteier begins his album examination, after the acknowledgments, with the words, “I am white”, and goes on to contextualize racial identification within the norms of the art form. Gasteier suggests that “white” listeners have been viewed as “outsiders” to hip-hop culture and, by implication, “black” art and community as well. Under these circumstances, how does one respectfully participate in the culture, or attempt to critique it? How does one take part in the culture without being perceived as some sort of culture bandit or someone who merely joins the latest trend? 

It’s a bit of a brain teaser to conceptualize someone positioned as an outsider to a culture that was, and perhaps still is, an outsider to the dominant society. If Hip-Hop could speak, maybe she (Common seems to think Hip-Hop is female, right?) would say, “Hey, a fellow Outsider is an Insider to me.”

Ironically, as a person classified as “black”, I can relate. I mean, I hardly ever think I’m the target audience for anything (except, maybe, police surveillance—just kidding…sort of). Sometimes I’m not entirely sure I’m the target audience for hip-hop, which almost always makes me feel like I need to learn more about what I’m listening to, expose myself to more of the same to overcome the awkwardness.

That’s the equalizer in rap, the listener’s grasp of the overall hip-hop timeline and discography, as reductive and unrealistically linear as that might be. In other words, to borrow and flip a line from Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables, you can get farther liking MC Hammer’s Please, Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Tone Loc’s Loc’d After Dark if you are well versed in Rakim, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa than you can liking Hammer and Tone Loc alone.

For Nas, his cultural awareness placed him at the right place, at the right time, poised to become a pivotal, influential figure who could bridge the “old” and “new” schools, who would produce the album now viewed as the pinnacle of what came before and the model for what was to follow. His performance on Illmatic was informed by the experience of living in the projects, and struggling for survival amid crime statistics, low expectations, and an even lower standard of living.

The direct link from neighborhood to rapper is that Nas’ rhymes on Illmatic are detailed and richly visual verbal portraits of his surroundings. Even a hater like me would have to admit that. The album opens with a sample from the landmark hip-hop film Wild Style, underscoring Illmatic‘s cinematic scope and feel. But it’s the way Nas deftly reports on his neighborhood’s conditions through his rhymes that arguably changes, and elevates, the hip-hop game. His rhymes embody the aerial view of Queensbridge depicted by Matthew Gasteier, so that even Nas’ first person accounts offer a bird’s eye perspective.

Gasteier refer to it as Nas’ ability to “represent”, like an artist painting a landscape. He makes the salient and sobering point that Nas doesn’t condemn his living conditions, but he doesn’t glorify it either. There’s violence on Illmatic, brutal depictions and grim realities, but Nas’ aesthetic values the rendering of the tale more than the commentary and morality of the tale.

Nas’ status as Reporter rather than Commentator is a crucial distinction to understand when evaluating Illmatic‘s rise to supremacy and its break from convention. Consider the albums that preceded it. Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet were overtly political. I love Public Enemy, but these albums, especially Black Planet, nudge the listener toward taking sides on issues instead of, or at least in addition to, enjoying the music. 

NWA’s Straight Outta Compton brought violence to the fore in a real way, but it’s tough to argue that NWA simply reported the facts. They were glorifying it, reveling in it, and bragging about it as much as they were spotlighting inequities and existing conditions. Scarface’s Mr. Scarface is Back took NWA’s outlaw mentality a step further, with a main character (Scarface) who told his stories in shocking detail relished the insanity that made him a disturbed sociopath. You gotta know an album’s going to be hardcore when the rapper’s name is “Scarface”.

Regarding Nas’ role as reporter, I was surprised Gasteier’s commentary didn’t make a bigger deal of Nas’ voice, either as a positive or as a drawback. Nas, to my ears, doesn’t have a flashy or arresting voice, which initially bothered me about Illmatic. Nas’ voice has a raspy and smoky quality to it, but it often hit me like a monotone, capable of transmitting all of the colorful details of his lyrics but without relying on a colorful delivery to do so. Sometimes I wish he possessed the colorful delivery.

As a tangential matter, I wonder if Nas’ voice has been central to the problem, whether actual or overstated, of beat selection. The scouting report on Nas is that he falters when it comes to choosing beats, but given the distinct sound and rasp of his voice, maybe the problem is more about matching his voice with an appropriate backdrop.  The very sound of his voice, along with the complexity of his verses, isn’t an easy fit for the so-called “commercial” background and chorus, but gravitating to the grimy and rugged beats of the so-called underground might be a recipe for depression.

Nas should probably get a little credit for his experimentation. For the present discussion, the relevant point is that the matter-of-fact nature of Nas’ voice works well with his style of lyrical reporting.  From that view, I appreciate Illmatic a bit more.

Gasteier describes Nas’ work as the equivalent of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”, and his coming-of-age tales are the touchstone of a new era in rap. Although I didn’t get the impression that Gasteier found many similarities between Tupac and Nas, Tupac’s Me Against the World reminds me of Illmatic in terms of its mixture of introspection, controlled aggression, and reverence for the past. Granted, Tupac tends to overtly celebrate and condemn a great deal more than Nas does, and Nas generally wins when we compare lyrical intricacies, but both albums humanize their heroes, display technical skill, and champion the genre’s past.

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Nas’ Illmatic

Matthew Gasteier

(Continuum; US: 30 Apr 2009)

Illmatic also gets credit for paving the way for albums such as the Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. On these releases, a single emcee navigates the musical terrain through an engaging persona over the course of an entire album, although B.I.G. and Jay-Z utilized larger than life personas compared to Nas’ stance as a “rebel of the street corner”. Personally, I’d be willing to give LL Cool J a ton of praise for doing the talented lone emcee thing on his first four albums, all released prior to Illmatic, except LL Cool J’s output wasn’t steeped in the grit of realistic street tales nor did it give as many insights into LL Cool J the man as Nas’ music gives about Nas.

Nas, as a product of his environment and a reporter of his observations, narrates what Gasteier calls the “origin story”.  Such stories give us, the audience, the idea that we can discern the essence of an artist’s talents and work by unlocking the artist’s past. Interestingly, he equates the rap origin stories of surviving daily life to the heroism in the comics. Comic book superheroes are produced by an “emotional and life altering ordeal.” In hip-hop, rappers triumph over fallen comrades and daily struggles. Rappers are often superhuman in their tales, from NWA’s triumphs over the cops in “F*ck the Police” to Chuck D’s unwavering ideological platform in Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb” despite the CIA and FBI tapping his phone (What?! They wouldn’t really do such a thing, would they?).

Superhuman skill is the norm in rap, as artists routinely brag and boast about the effectiveness of their lyrical game. Nas’ Illmatic, to quote Matthew Gasteier, is “essentially about his beginnings,” and his story is about the boy on the album cover whose face is superimposed over the Queensbridge cityscape. In “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, Nas refers to himself as being “half-man, half-amazin’”, and so, instead of being uncompromisingly “gangsta” or “socially conscious” or “club-oriented”, Nas’ persona is part myth and part “everyday kid from Queensbridge”. Being both “super” and “human” sets him apart from the pack, capable of the typical boast but also the atypical snapshot representation.

Influenced in his childhood and his teens by his environment, I wonder if these circumstances explain why, aside from Nas’ desire to experiment and advance as an artist, he hasn’t fully returned to the Illmatic model. His post-Illmatic work has all but rejected the tight-rhyme-meets-raw-beat formula. The simple fact might be that the conditions giving rise to Illmatic just can’t be duplicated. When Jay-Z challenged Nas in “The Takeover” saying that Nas had a track record of releasing one hot album every ten years, there’s a ring of truth to that. Illmatic‘s impact on the entire field is the type of thing that happens once in a lifetime.


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