Friday, April 10, 2009

Nas - Illmatic

In 1992 Queens resident and 3rd Bass member MC Serch was busy transforming into EP (executive producer) Serch, having recently undertaken as his newest project a young skinny kid from the Queensbridge projects, located just a short ride across money making Manhattan on the 59th St Bridge, but otherwsie worlds apart. Known as one of the city's toughest projects, QB also has spawned many of hip-hop's elite, starting with the likes of Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante and the Juice Crew in the early 80's, moving through to Capone and Noreaga, Nature, Cormega and Mobb Deep in the '90's.

And then there was Nas, the 19 year-old prodigy who started appearing on tracks, most famously Main Source's 'Live at the BBQ,' and Serch's 'Back to the Grill,' showing that perfect combination of distinctive, instantly recognizable, world weary vocal timbre, narrative talent, and infectious, confident style that only the best MC's possess. Serch had himself a jewel, a once in a lifetime talent (thanks Q-tip) that no doubt would have emerged successfully on his own, but nevertheless was carefully and quickly ushered into the limelight with the success of Illmatic.

Illmatic is a hip-hop purist's holy grail, the ideal synthesis of music, rhythm, and gifted MCing. To make a brief analogy apropos to this site, it was like the perfect combination of terroir, grape variety and winemaking ability. Even further, a vinous equivalent to Illmatic might be putting together and marketing a case of Loire (Loire representing hip-hop here) wine: 3 bottles each of Huet Vouvray, Luneau Papin Muscadet, Olga Raffault Chinon and Clos Roche Blanche Cot.

OK, back to the music. Four of the best producers of the sample based school of hip-hop beat production were set to task to patch together the perfect canvas to inspire and complement Nas. And that they did. Many consider the contributions made by Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor and DJ Premier to be amongst their most inspired work.

Opening with a brief cinematic interlude, then segueing into the Subway theme from Wild Style, the album begins with Nas and others ad-libbing a hangin' out in the hood type scenario, with Nas' observing that 'Niggas don't listen.' From there, Nas slides into the character of a money hungry, drug dealing resident of a New York ghetto, trying to take care of himself. With lines like 'Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined,' and a refrain such as 'I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death,' this is some serious, serious writing. Delivered with perfect timing in Nas' inimitable voice, this is MCing of the highest order. Combinining a keen narrative sense with an intensely personal autobiographical perspective, Nas hits homerun after homerun, perhaps culminating with 'One Love,' a letter to an incarcerated friend, updating him on what's going on in the hood, and set to a mellow, jazzy, vibraphone based sample from the Abstract (Q-Tip), who also lends his voice to the chorus.

Never before had a hip-hop record been so anticipated and hyped by the masses as when Illmatic was released. In this rare case, the hype was to be believed and justified. Illmatic is easily one of the three best hip-hop records of all time and amongst the best records released in the 1990's. It remains one of my favorites of all time.