Hip-hop thrives on contradiction. In a genre where soapbox grabbing is constantly at odds with proving your masculinity, heartfelt eye- opening social commentary placed next to nihilistic gangsta posturing is not just acceptable, it’s the norm. Such ambiguity in rappers does not come from the power of the mike alone. The young black man’s place in America is itself a contradiction — a struggle to survive that has successfully disproved its own basic conflict. If we are dying out, hip-hop tells us, why am I here?
Out of such disillusionment, it’s inevitable that religious imagery — such as the “God’s Son” tattoo across Nas’s chest — is embraced. After all, bragging that you have been “Born Again,” as Biggie did posthumously, isn’t any more blasphemous than claiming that you’re “Ready to Die.”
But even more inevitable is the emergence of hip-hop’s true conflict: a rapper’s confidence in his abilities is constantly at odds with his uncertainty about his place. As any retiring Jay-Z will tell you, the game is played by the young, and the fresh perspective and confidence that’s necessary to revolutionize can only come with the brazenness to assume that such confidence comes from legitimacy. Whether you are justified in your assumption or not is irrelevant to the creation of great art. The talent and confidence to express yourself accurately is often enough to create revolutionary work.
Nas’s 1994 debut, the now-classic Illmatic, fits firmly into this design. The album, which is being commemorated with this long overdue re-mastered edition for its ten-year anniversary, is perhaps the pinnacle of hip-hop’s greatest era. Its social commentary wasn’t as blatant as the Notorious B.I.G.’s would be five months later on his debut, Ready to Die, nor was its commercialism. But because of its unwarranted confidence — a confidence that can only come from youth — Illmatic is perhaps the more vivid picture of the psyche of the urban black male in his early twenties.
Struggle is absent in Illmatic, as is the frustration of failure, instead replaced by his faith in money and rhyming. In “Life’s a Bitch,” Nas speaks of waking “up early on my born day, I’m twenty years of blessin’/ The essence of adolescence leaves my body now I’m fresh’n/ My physical frame is celebrated ’cause I made it/ one quarter through life, some godly like thing created.” How many records would follow up “Life’s a Bitch” by claiming “The World is Yours”?
For all of the typical hip-hop posturing and rightly deserved hubris that can be found on Illmatic and throughout Nas’s early career, the album’s lyrics are blissfully unaware of their contradictions, not to mention their importance. Nas asks, “That’s what this is all about, right? Clothes, bankrolls, and hoes, right? Then what?” on “Life’s A Bitch.” But what is this self-proclaimed “addict of sneakers, twenties of buddha and bitches with beepers” expecting to find? And does he really believe he is due for a song called “Memory Lane” at 20 years old? Growing up in Queensbridge, Nas had no doubt seen more than most people his age, but experience does not bring perspective the way age does. The song plays beautifully and holds its own with the best here, but the listener is stuck wondering what Nas expects from tomorrow. Then again, tomorrow is exactly what Nas doesn’t expect.
None of this is to say that Nas didn’t understand what he was doing when he made Illmatic. With no female-sung hooks, no guest stars and no single producer, the record depends on its star rapper more than most hip-hop albums. But the self-proclaimed “rapper’s rapper” maintains consistency with line after line of expertly crafted rhymes; his verses go on long after most rappers would have had segued into the backup singers. Nas raps over more than 40 bars on “N.Y. State of Mind”; lesser stars would have put at least a guest appearance.
The triumph here, at least from a performance perspective, is “Halftime,” the Large Professor-produced cut that was the appetite-whetting single long before Illmatic was released. “Back in ’83 I was an emcee sparkin’/ But I was too scared to grab the mikes in the parks and/ Kick my little raps ’cause I thought niggaz wouldn’t understand/ And now in every jam I’m the fuckin’ man/ I rap in front of more niggaz than in the slave ships/ I used to watch C.H.I.P.s, now I load glock clips.”
Nas flows so well here it’s difficult to stop mid-thought; even more impossible is to find a seam. The lyrics are bolstered by production from Pete Rock, Premier and Q-Tip — their work on Illmatic is among their best (plus, AZ spits maybe the best ever guest verse on “Life’s a Bitch”) — Nas is clearly the star here and, at twenty years old, solely responsible for the success of Illmatic.
The reason for this success is not that he exposed a snapshot of young black men circa 1994, but what that snapshot reveals: a world outlook that tells us “life sucks so fuck it all,” while still maintaining crew loyalties and fighting to survive. The temptation to adopt such an attitude is, of course, not constrained to Black America. Even the most privileged of Americans dabble in cynicism. What makes Illmatic, and the large portion of hip-hop at this point in history, so successful is the legitimacy that such a struggle as Nas overcame has afforded him.
Unlike the rock ethos of “live fast and die young,” hip-hop believes in living fast because you die young. Nas still fights with nihilism and apathy, but he has the impression that he has seen better, overcome that which has given him doubts, and finally freed himself from the chains that bound him earlier in life. It is this misguided yet hopeful assumption that pervades Illmatic, and it is that very notion that Nas has struggled with throughout his later career. From the sell-out of the late-’90s to his attempt to return to his roots — first with a grasp for glory-by-association with the almost-classic Stillmatic, then with the regression even further, back to mother, with God’s Son — Nas has proven both that Illmatic is an impossible act to follow and an undeniably great portrait of an artist as a young man who may never truly find his identity.
Illmatic is the best hip-hop record ever made. Not because it has ten great tracks with perfect beats and flawless rhymes, but because it encompasses everything great about hip-hop that makes the genre worthy of its place in music history. Stylistically, if every other hip-hop record were destroyed, the entire genre could be reconstructed from this one album. But in spirit, Illmatic can just as easily be compared to Ready to Die, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Enter the Wu-Tang as it can to Rites of Spring, A Hard Day’s Night, Innervisions, and Never Mind the Bollocks. In Illmatic, you find the meaning not just of hip-hop, but of music itself: the struggle of youth to retain its freedom, which is ultimately the struggle of man to retain his own essence.