I wrote this almost 10 years ago for a ‘zine called Izzum that a bunch of friends would put out on a monthly basis. Each issue had a column called Essentials, where one of us music snobs would let you know why you should have a certain album in your collection. This issue was the hip hop issue, so I took the opportunity to expand on my feelings about Nas’ Illmatic (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary). I still stand by it.
The Greatest Hip Hop Album of All Time: Ilimatic by Nas.
Don’t agree with me? Fuck you, I don’t care – you’re wrong. While a strong case could be made for say, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions. . . or Run DMC’s Raising Hell (they’re still not as good as Illmatic), when some young punk tried to convince me that Jay Z’s The Black Album was the greatest of all time, I had to school him (told him don’t let niggaz fool him…).
“Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with: The thief’s theme…”
1994. Building upon the seminal release of NWA’s debut, strong releases from the likes of Dr. Dre (The Chronic, 1994) and Snoop (Doggystyle, 1993) had shifted hip hop’s nexus to the Left Coast from its NYC cradle. Suburban wannabe gangstas and greedy marketing executives everywhere were clamoring for the sounds of G-Funk. With a debut the strength of which has rarely, if ever, been duplicated, Nas snatched hip hop and brought him back home. In contrast with the loud and flashy LA drive-bys, Ilimatic was cold steel on a dark night, the carnage only to be revealed later on in the day’s light.
Gathering drum tracks from finest DAISY-age producers, Nas laced Primo, Pete Rock, and Large Professor beats with the smoothest tales of ghetto life through the eyes of a 19 year-old. A gifted storyteller with Buddha-blessed pacing, images of the ghetto were painted without embellishment but with rare beauty. Despite his grim surroundings, a sliver of hope gleams through every track on what is, despite its relaxed flow, a densely packed, 40 minute, 10 song (and not a weak one among them) album.
A true East Coast album, I damn near wore out that cassette in my walkman, listening to it again, again, and again on public transit. One day, switching tapes, a gleam from the clear case caught the eye of the kid across the way. A knowing smile crossed his face when he recognized the cover. Not a word was said, but we knew. And now, you do too.