Illmatic is a milestone in hip-hop, an undisputed classic that is held on a pedestal to this day. Though there are many albums with greater highs, you’d be hard pressed to find one with fewer flaws. It captures a cultural scene so poignantly to achieve a timeless status that only a few albums hold alongside it.
Nas calmly and smoothly uses the stories of city life to form an account that remains relatable to any culture, race, or religion: here is the tale of a talented artist trying to break away from the same troubled settlement that defines his character. He raps with a purity that was frankly not expected from a 21-year old hip-hop artist — he sounds youthful, yet incredibly wise. Illmatic has every element required that goes into making a great hip-hop record, with no gimmicks to intervene. At its simple core, this can be described as a collection of ten essential tracks, each with great beats and great rhymes. Its short length leaves you wanting more, particularly the closing track, which teases a follow up with its fade out.
It’s a rare instance of a hip-hop album with zero filler and no wasted space. Over 20 years on from its release, Illmatic remains infinitely listenable from beginning to end, and demands numerous plays. For those looking to get into hip-hop, I would recommend Illmatic ahead of any record at my disposal. Better rap albums have been released since, but none have captured the heart and soul of hip-hop quite like this. For Nas, the success has been both a blessing and a curse, but despite a patchy catalogue of works, Illmatic will always stand on its own terms. It’s an undisputed classic that his reputation will always rest upon. And for that, Nas will go down in history.
9 out of 10
This is one of those albums that colours how you see a time and place. Born of ‘90s New York hip-hop, Illmatic, without being a blowaway experience, is as close to flawless as a record can reasonably get. Ten tracks, 40 minutes, no filler. Thank you very much. Each song has its own killer hook with a crisp flow, sampling is effortless and appropriate, and Nas delivers his account of city life with a gravity far beyond his years.
There’s something elemental about Illmatic. A kind of cultural ground zero. The meldings of old and new, youth and experience, cynicism and hope, culminate in a work as powerful today as it would have been 20 years ago. It doesn’t so much peak as it does resolutely go about being really good, but in doing so it laid some rock solid foundation for its peers. I’ll definitely be returning to this. A great listen, and a major hip-hop touchstone.
8 out of 10
Illmatic received high praise after its release, shooting Nas to the forefront of the hip-hop scene and causing ripples with fans at the time. It’s easy to see why, listening to this debut release over 20 years later. Without any illusions of grandeur, every track on Illmatic manages to make a point and sound great doing it. Instrumentals can be noticeably repetitive, but not with a detrimental effect to the track overall, with “N.Y. State of Mind” sticking to a simple piano loop and drum pattern but managing to do so in a way that simply leaves the stage clear for the lyrics to remain the focus. Even for those that often don’t or won’t focus on lyrics, Nas delivering ‘I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death’ is hard not to notice.
A consistently fresh sound of a ’90s summer is a common theme here too, with a varied array of samples and sounds on each track holding the listener’s attention. Even without commanding one’s full attention, Illmatic still works, a mix of a silky delivery throughout and some very consumable instrumentals makes for an album for the foreground and the background; a small but notable plus point. Illmatic still stands strong as a classic hip-hop record of the ’90s, if you can focus and connect with the lyrics you could well get a great deal out of this release, if not, you’ll find something to enjoy here.
As “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” fades away, I’m met with a bittersweet feeling of enjoyment and disappointment that it’s over all too soon; with a 39 minute play time, it sits at the lower end of full length LPs, but leaving a listener wanting more has never been the worst problem for an artist to have.
8 out of 10