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Illmatic
Illmatic
Studio album by Nas

Released

19 April 1994

Recorded

1992-1993 at Battery Studios, Chung King Studios, D&D Recording and Unique Recording Studios (New York City, New York)

Genre

Hip hop

Length

39:44

Label

Columbia

Producer

DJ Premier, L.E.S., Large Professor, MC Serch (exec.), Faith N. (exec.), Pete Rock, Q-Tip

Nas chronology

Next

It Was Written (1996)

Illmatic is the debut album by American rapper Nas, released in 1994 on Columbia Records. After signing to the label with the help of MC Serch, Nas recorded the album during 1992 and 1993 at Battery Studios, Chung King Studios, D&D Recording, and Unique Recording Studios in New York City. Illmatic was produced by an all-star team consisting of DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip, as well as newcomer L.E.S., who would go on to greater levels of success after his production appearance on this album. Styled as a hardcore hip hop album, Illmatic features multi-syllabic internal rhyme patterns and inner city narratives based on Nas' experiences in his native Queensbridge, New York.

Upon its release, the album debuted at number 12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 59,000 copies in its first week. However, its inital sales fell below expectations and its five singles failed to achieve significant chart success. Though it experienced initial low sales, Illmatic received rave reviews from most music critics upon its release and earned praise for its lyrical content, production, and Nas' lyricism. On the 17th of January 1996, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and in 2001, it earned platinum certification after shipments of one million copies in the United States.

Since its initial reception, Illmatic has been recognised by writers and music critics as a landmark album in East Coast hip hop. Its influence on subsequent hip hop artists has been attributed to the album's production and Nas' lyricism. It also contributed to the revival of the New York City rap scene, at a time when West Coast hip hop was dominating. The album remains one of the most widely celebrated albums in hip hop history, and is generally accepted to be the greatest hip hop album of all time.

BackgroundEdit

As a teenager, Nas wanted to pursue a career as a rapper and enlisted his best friend and neighbour, Willy "Ill Will" Graham, as his DJ. He initially used the stage name "Kid Wave" before adopting "Nasty Nas". At fifteen, Nas met rapper and producer Large Professor, and was introduced to his group Main Source. Nas made his commercial debut on the opening verse of their song "Live at the Barbeque" from their 1991 album Breaking Atoms. Nas and Ill Will continued to work together, but their partnership was cut short when Graham was murdered by a gunman in Queensbridge on 23 May 1992; Nas' brother was also shot, but survived. Nas later cited that moment as a "wake-up call" for him.

In mid 1992, MC Serch, whose group 3rd Bass had recently dissolved, began working on a solo project and approached Nas for a collaboration. Nas featured on the song "Back to the Grill", the lead single for Serch's 1992 album Return of the Product. At the recording session for the song, Serch discovered that Nas did not have a recording contract and subsequently contacted Faith Newman, an A&R executive at Sony Music Entertainment. When Newman was given Nas' demo, she claimed that she had been looking for him for a year and a half, and immediately signed him to the Sony subsidiary Columbia Records. 

Nas made his solo debut with the 1992 Large Professor-produced single "Halftime", which was initially featured on the soundtrack to the film Zebrahead. The single added to the buzz surrounding him, earning comparisisons to influential rapper Rakim. With Serch assuming the role of executive producer for Nas' debut project, he attempted to connect Nas with various producers. Based on his buzz at the time, numerous New York-based producers were eager to work with him. Among those producers was DJ Premier, recognised at the time for his raw, aggressive production style with jazz-based samples and heavy scratching, and for his with rapper Guru as a part of Gang Starr. Prior to recording, DJ Premier had listened to Nas' debut single, claiming that the song was as classic to him as "Eric B. Is President" and "The Bridge" and that he would collaborate with Nas "even it wasn't payin' no money."

RecordingEdit

Illmatic artists

Clockwise from top left: Pete Rock, Nas, Large Professor, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, L.E.S.

While Serch reached out to DJ Premier, Large Professor contacted Pete Rock to collaborate with Nas on what became "The World Is Yours". Shortly afterwards, producers Q-Tip and L.E.S. were enlisted to also work on the album. Nas' father, Olu Dara, appears with a cornet solo on the outro of "Life's a Bitch", which also features the debut of rapper AZ.

In an early promotional interview, Nas claimed that the name "Illmatic" was a reference to his incarcerated Queensbridge friend, Illmatic Ice. Nas later described the title name as "supreme ill. It's as ill as it gets. That shit is a science of everything ill." At the time of its recording, expectations in the hip hop scene were high for Illmatic after the acclaim that "Halftime" and his two guest appearances had received. In a 1994 interview for The Source, which dubbed him "the second coming", Nas spoke highly of the album, saying that "this feels like a big project that's gonna affect the world."

ContentEdit

Illmatic contains discerning treatment of its subject matter: gang rivalries, desolation, and the ravages of urban poverty. Nas, who was twenty years old when the album was released, focuses on his own experiences, creating highly detailed first-person narratives that detail the troubled life of an inner city teenager. The narratives featured in Illmatic originate from Nas' own experiences as an adolescent growing up in Queensbridge, as the lyrics allude to the housing projects located in the Long Island City-section of Queens, New York.

Along with its narratives, Illmatic is also distinct for its many portrayals and descriptions of places, people and interactions. In his songs, Nas often depicts the corners and boulevards of Queensbridge, while mentioning the names of streets, friends, local crews and drug dealers, and utilising vernacular slang indigenous to his hometown.

Many of the themes found in Illmatic revolve around Nas' experiences of living in an environment where poverty, violence and drug use are overwhelming. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, residents of Queensbridge experienced intense violence as the housing development was overrun by the crack epidemic. Illmatic contains imagery inspired by this prevalence of street crime. On "N.Y. State of Mind", Nas details the trap doors, rooftop snipers, street corner lookouts and drug dealers that pervade his urban dreamscape.

LyricismEdit

Illmatic has been noted by music writers for Nas' unique style of delivery and lyrical and poetic substance. His lyrics feature multi-syllabic compounded rhymes, internal half rhymes, assonance and enjambment.

ProductionEdit

The production on Illmatic is often praised as much as its lyrics. According to critics, the album's producers extensively contributed to the cohesive atmospheric aesthetic that permeated the album, while still each retaining their individual sounds. The majority of the album consists of 1970s funk, soul and jazz samples.

ArtworkEdit

On the vinyl and cassette pressings of Illmatic, the traditional Side A and Side B division were replaced with "40th Side North" and "41st Side South" respectively - the main streets that form the geographic boundaries that divide the Queensbridge housing projects.

Album coverEdit

The classic album cover of Illmatic features a picture of a seven-year-old Nas, which was taken after his father Olu Dara returned home from an overseas tour. The original cover was intended to have a picture of Nas holding Jesus Christ in a headlock, referring to his infamous line from his debut verse on the song "Live at the Barbeque"; "When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus."

The final cover, designed by Aimee Macauley, features the aforementioned childhood photo of Nas superimposed over a backdrop of the Queensbridge housing projects, taken by Danny Clinch. In a 1994 interview, Nas discussed the concept behind the used photo of him, stating "That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That's the year everything set off. That's the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn't leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there's more out there." As yet, Nas has not pointed to any outside influence for the album cover. However, the cover of the 1974 jazz album A Child Is Born by Howard Hanger features an almost identical concept.

Commercial performanceEdit

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Critical receptionEdit

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The SourceEdit

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ControversyEdit

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RetrospectEdit

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Legacy and influenceEdit

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East Coast hip hopEdit

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ProductionEdit

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QueensbridgeEdit

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Decline of alternative hip hopEdit

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West Coast hip hopEdit

LyricismEdit

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Hip hop poetryEdit

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Hip hop artistsEdit

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Legacy and tributesEdit

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Intellectual responseEdit

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Hip hop debatesEdit

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Subsequent work by NasEdit

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Track listingEdit

No. Title Performer(s) Writer(s) Producer(s) Length
1.

"The Genesis"

- Braithwaite, Jones - 1:45
2. "N.Y. State of Mind" Nas Jones, Martin DJ Premier 4:54
3. "Life's a Bitch" Nas, AZ Cruz, Dara, Jones, Scott, Wilson L.E.S., Nas (co.) 3:30
4. "The World Is Yours" Nas Jones, Phillips Pete Rock 4:50
5. "Halftime" Nas Byrd, Jones, Mitchell Large Professor 4:20
6. "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)" Nas Barsella, Jones, Martin, Wilson DJ Premier 4:08
7.

"One Love"

Nas Davis, Heath, Jones Q-Tip 5:25
8. "One Time 4 Your Mind" Nas Jones, Mitchell Large Professor 3:18
9. "Represent" Nas Jones, Martin DJ Premier 4:12
10. "It Ain't Hard to Tell" Nas Jones, Mitchell Large Professor 3:22

Notes

  • Track 3 features trumpet performed by Olu Dara.

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