It Ain’t Hard To Tell… Nas’ Illmatic Is Decidedly Your Greatest Of All-Time Hip-Hop Album
Last September, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: what is the greatest Rap Album Of All-Time? “Finding The GOAT Album” has considered more than 120 albums from the 80s, 90s and 2000s (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. At last, the championship battle round has been reached—and you have decided which Hip-Hop album lives on in the annals of AFH reader history as the GOAT.
By a margin of exactly 11% (55.5% to 44.5%), you have selected Nas’ April, 1994 debut album Illmatic as the “The Greatest Hip-Hop Album Of All Time.” Defeating Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in the championship round, Illmatic assumed its place at the top. In the battles leading back to September, the LP had defeated heralded works by LL Cool J, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, DMX, and GZA to “Represent” as the winner.
What makes Illmatic so iconic to many people?
Before “Halftime,” Nas had been heard by the public on two songs, the interrelated “Live At The Barbeque” by Main Source (1991), and “Back To The Grill Again” by MC Serch (1992). In both feature performances, the teenage Nasir Jones seemingly shined above a rich crop of peers. Hip-Hop Heads were ready to invest in an album by a fledgling Queens, New York MC after just two songs before “Nasty Nas'” cross-promoted first Illmatic single rolled off of pressing plants attached to the Zebrahead soundtrack. Comparatively, Nas has considerably less pre-debut exposure to the masses than early ’90s peers such as Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, or The Notorious B.I.G.
Like Derek Jeter joining the New York Yankees, Nas was presented as a wunderkind, surrounded by some of the best music-makers in Hip-Hop. While they were peers in age, neighborhood, and other ways, Large Professor would fully produce Nas to the public. The man born William Paul Mitchell ran the session on Nas’ first verse, and handled his reported three-track demo. The artist known as Large Pro had fronted Main Source lyrically and creatively for the early 1990s, while producing (credited and uncredited) for esteemed veterans such as Eric B. & Rakim, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. Nas would become the ultimate pupil to the SP-1200 sample surgeon. Producing three songs (two singles) on Illmatic (“Halftime,” “One Time 4 Your Mind,” “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”), Large Professor helped open the studio doors to beats by DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and Queensbridge newcomer L.E.S. This ensemble of five producers would together sound as one, giving Nas the ultimate pastiche.
However, beyond production—and producers, Nas’ insight, wisdom, and journalism of Vernon Boulevard astounded audiences. Not exactly a gangsta rapper, the 20 year-old wrote to his incarcerated peers on “One Love,” and packed automatic weapons in his Army Navy jacket on “Halftime.” More than malice or menace, Nas promoted mischief. He was a blunt-smoking, Nike-wearing teen that grew up studying the old heads, and wanted in. Finding The Abstract, The Chocolate Boy Wonder, Preemo, and Extra P on an album was symbolic. Nas was the fly young guy who fit in anywhere. “Life’s A Bitch” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” were more than cadence-and-image-driven showcases of flow. With horns never far from reach (including one played by father Olu Dara), Nas made a case for Hip-Hop Jazz with his sketches of the Big Apple. The lyrics to the LP have incredible soul, but do not pretend to be more than they are. At 20, Nasir recounts ripping up green-cards and breaking into factories on equal billing with iconic lines such as “I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessing / The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh and / My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it / One quarter through life some Godly-like thing created.” Nas elevated the rhyme patterns akin to Rakim in the 1980s, with the grave sincerity of Tupac Shakur.
In the 22 years (to the month) since Illmatic released, its legend has only grown. The #18 charted work reached platinum status in the next decade. Nas’ definitively best work is not his best-selling. The LP’s singles never reached the Top 50 on the charts (far from it), and even on 1994’s Rap/R&B charts, it never reached the Top 20. In short, there are no distractions in an album that is democratically deemed Hip-Hop’s greatest. Its Fab 5 Freddy-directed New York-centric videos refused to pander to MTV, and its singles ignored Pop conventions. While so many artists chase the spotlight (and Nas certainly would, later), Illmatic is unassuming—head down, eyes wide, skills sharp.
Indicative of these voting results, “time has been Illmatic.” Despite its quiet rise, the Columbia Records album has been a stone in the sand. Re-released when it turned 10, as well as an Illmatic XX package in 2014, the album is deeply revered in its label’s catalog. With those releases, B-sides, rare mixes, and new videos emerged. The writing and recording Nas did in his upper-teens is treated with the care of catalog by Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. Time Is Illmatic would follow, a feature-length documentary on the album that Def Jam Records reportedly passed on. Nas’ benchmark album illustrated the meritocratic American dream, a bygone era in New York City, and the belief that skills prevail in Hip-Hop.
Just under 40 minutes long, Illmatic is a testament to quantity over quality. Emblematic of 20 years of life, this LP speaks to the adage that your debut album is a sum of all experience up to that point. Even in the era of singles, every song on the album stands on its own, and slides into its place. These 10 tracks prove why albums are greater than the sum of their parts. Nas beautifully introduced himself in 1994, and we still want to know him better because of it.