My 10 Favorite Hip Hop Albums Of All Time: Part VII

Posted: March 31, 2017 in Uncategorized

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(Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI)

Only four more albums to go. That’s where we’re at now. It’s the dog days of the countdown season and we’re pushing through to the finish line with four more classics. Any one of these albums could easily take the top spot. But decisions needed to be made and rankings have been set.

At number four we have one of the most universally loved and appreciated hip hop albums ever. And rightfully so. It’s easily one of the best combinations of raw lyrical talent mixed with incredible beats created by some of the best producers of all time. I mean, seriously…the production roster on this thing is wild. This guy was blessed to get so much love from some living legends on his first EP. Everything came together at the perfect time to make this album such a classic.

He’s my personal favorite rapper, and this is his best album.

I present to you, the one and only…

Illmatic.

Number 4: Nas – Illmatic (1994)

Illmatic

 

Unlike most of the other albums on this list, I don’t have a special story for when I first heard Illmatic. I just heard songs in pieces until I realized they were all from the same album. So, back when CDs were a thing, I went out and bought the CD because it felt like the right thing to do. To own a piece of history from an artist who was quickly becoming my favorite rapper.

If I could describe Illmatic in two words, they’d be: Quality and Consistency. It’s a “short” album, meaning it’s not 20 tracks long with skits and fillers. No, it’s essentially 9 very good – great hip hop songs, structured in a way that makes for an extremely smooth and enjoyable listening experience. I don’t count the intro track (“The Genesis“) as an actual song because it doesn’t involve Nas rapping. It’s just a beat (a good one at that) and Nas/AZ giving shoutouts. Although I’m not considering it as a key component of the album, I still never skip it. It’s a great tone setter for the New York imagery you’ll hear throughout the rest of the tracks. Once your ears hear the dark boom bap drums of “New York State of Mind,” it’s smooth sailing from front to back.

New York State of Mind,” is a great place to jump into discussing the unparalleled production credits on Illmatic. Never in hip hop history has a debut album had the Murderer’s Row type production roster that Nas was blessed with. The kid could rhyme, that’s for sure. But he also was aided with some of the best beat-makers we’ve ever seen. My personal favorite, DJ Premier, came through with three heaters. “NY State of Mind” is for sure the best of the three. It’s where we’re first introduced to the microphone skills of young Nasir Jones. His lyrics take us on a voyage through the crime-ridden underbelly of New York, and Premier’s creepy piano samples are the perfect first mate. We get more Premo halfway through the album on track 6 with “Memory Lane,” which is a 180 from the bleak subject matter of NYSOM. Premo’s silky smooth keys and vocal samples take us all back to our childhood summers, running around in parks and simply enjoying youth. Premier appears for the third and final time toward the end of the album on track 9, “Represent,” which is a much more upbeat hype track than the previous two. The gang chorus shouting “REPRESENT-REPRESENT!” will make anyone feel like a gangster. This album, in a weird way, is a microcosm of DJ Premier’s capabilities as a producer. He’s able to slow it down and get real muddy and grimey (NYSOM), smooth it out with some heartfelt soul samples (Memory Lane), and hype it up for the crew (Represent). Still waiting on that Nas/Premier full length project to drop. Anytime guys…

The man who discovered Nas also had a big footprint on the production of Illmatic. New York legend Large Professor produced three tracks for his young protege on his debut, including the first two singles. Halfway through the album on track 5, we first hear from Large Pro on the appropriately titled, “Halftime.” The track is carried by the fun and funky bass line along with the mariachi-esque horn sample in the chorus. The second single, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” has a very similar sound. Large Pro comes through with one of the most recognizable saxophone samples we’ve ever heard (“T.R.O.Y. and “Rumpshaker are two others that come to mind), and Nas drops some of his most quotable lines. His third contribution, “One Time 4 Your Mind,” is the weakest track on the album, in my opinion. It’s the only song that feels useless in the track list. There’s nothing memorable about it and at times it feels juvenile compared to the rest of the tracks. It’s really my only criticism of Illmatic. It’s not a bad song by any means, but when it’s sandwiched between 8 classics, it feels a little lackluster.

If three tracks each from DJ Premier and Large Professor weren’t enough to get you excited about this album, fear not! I see your Premo/Large Pro and raise you a Pete Rock/Q-Tip combo. Pete Rock comes through with one of the best works of his career (see “T.R.O.Y.” above) on “The World Is Yours.” Picking a favorite song off Illmatic is nearly impossible. But…gun to my head I would probably say “The World Is Yours.” Even DJ Premier himself has said he came to the Illmatic sessions with a bunch of beats to play for Nas. Then when he walked in and heard Pete Rock playing “The World Is Yours,” he scrapped his entire catalogue and went back to work. That’s how exceptional this track is. It forced a legend to work harder than ever. Not to be outdone by his peers, Q-Tip rolls through with his signature sound on track 7, “One Love.” The upright bass and jazzy instrumentation stand out from all the other tracks that have a more standard New York street feel. Q-Tip’s production perfectly matches the subject matter in Nas’ storytelling and makes for one of the more unique songs on the album, and a personal favorite. Finally, I have to mention the smooth and sultry, “Life’s a Bitch.” While producer and childhood friend of Nas, L.E.S., doesn’t have the giant catalogue or legendary status that the other producers on Illmatic have, check his production credits. He’s been behind some classics. “Life’s a Bitch” holds the only feature on the album, introducing us to a rapper by the name of AZ, who drops arguably the greatest guest verse of all time (Nas himself may have something to say about that with “Verbal Intercourse“). Nas’ own father, Olu Dara, plays a beautiful cornet solo as the song fades out. It’s a unique production on the track listing, and it holds up against all others.

The beats are all amazing, but let’s give credit where credit is due – there is no Illmatic without Nas. You could assemble the same producers and the same beats for any rapper, but a very, VERY few could turn them into the masterpieces that Nas did. It was a young, talented New York rapper at his most raw and hungry. There was no big marketing scheme behind it. No videos with girls, and no love songs for the ladies. It was just Nas, in the flesh, hitting you with BARS. He packed so much lyrical content into every single line. It’s truly incredible when you go through the lyrics and break it down. He made what many consider to be the greatest hip hop album ever without a single catchy hook. Seriously, listen to all the songs. There’s either no chorus at all, or just Nas repeating the name of the track in spoken word. The exception to this, and what would be considered the closest thing to an actual hook, is “Life’s a Bitch.” Besides that, maybe “Represent?” The point is, most rappers rely on catchy hooks to get radio play and sell records. They need those few lines that stick in your head to stand out over the rest of the track. With Nas, it’s the exact opposite. He avoids choruses of any kind because they’d take away from what he’s saying in his verses. I can only imagine how much hardcore Nas fans cringed in the late 90s when he dropped “Oochi Wally.” The man simply doesn’t need to sell out like that, and he still hasn’t. 27 years later and Nas has rarely compromised his artistic and lyrical integrity in an attempt to sell records (“Oochi Wally” notwithstanding). It’s something you just have to accept and respect about the guy, and if you can’t get down with it, then take a walk.

The legacy of Illmatic has been written about and documented thousands of times. At this point, there’s not much you can say about it that hasn’t already been said. So what does Illmatic mean to me?

Well, I think Illmatic is the perfect hip hop starter kit. It’s what I’d recommend to someone who’s never listened to hip hop, or has reservations about the genre. It’s a bullet-proof record. You can’t not like it. Even the most heavy metal, rock-centered people will find themselves bobbing their heads along to the music. And even if you don’t have the trained ear to keep up with each and every lyric, you’ll be able to pick up on a few standout lines that you’ll find super clever when they click in your head. A lot (and I mean A LOT) of hip hop can rub people the wrong way, but Illmatic lives in it’s own zone that’s impervious to hate and negativity. It’s like the Sweden of music. Completely neutral to other genres, and beloved by it’s own people.

There are a lot of places you can start your hip hop consumption, but if you ask me, there’s no better place to pop your cherry than Illmatic.

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