Nas, the ever-prolific, verbal “Assassin” drags the listener in to the gritty New York Streets and shows them the ropes of what an average day would be like in the concrete jungle. The disgusting people, the seedy underbelly of a world of crime, but also the beauty in New York, a journey through a double life, and doing what needs to be done for survival. In the end, Nas is an educator, rather than just another New York rapper.
Illmatic, not only one of the most outstanding hip-hop records ever, but also a statement on life in New York. The constant struggle to overthrow the next person in power to come out on top. Nas has no problem opening up on his personal story, and from the very beginning of “N.Y. State of Mind,” it is clear what his intentions are.
“N.Y. State of Mind,” has this New York at nighttime feel, the back-alleys with manholes spewing steam, the busy streets, and the classy style of the people. Nas opens up about where his roots are, “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap, where fake niggas don’t make it back.” Nas is not afraid to put his personal story out there to share exactly what goes down in The City That Never Sleeps. Rather than speaking of how wonderful life is there, he explains the struggle for food, power, and survival.
Nas then follows up with “Life’s a Bitch” which has this smooth, boom-clap beat. It feels like a callback to the jazzier sides of hip-hop, and throughout Illmatic, these callbacks to a different time period. The smooth beats, the constant theme of survival, and growing up on the city streets. The hook, while laid over this uplifting beat is quite depressing, “Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high cause you never know where you’re gonna go.”
Illmatic then comes to “The World Is Yours,” which is hands down one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever made. The beat, the lyrics, everything about this track is just so musically sound and it gives Illmatic a switch up in style. The lyrics are still about how untamed Nas’ life was, but it at least has a more uplifting mood and looks to the future with bright eyes.
Following is the track “Halftime,” which goes back to the boom-bap style that was made popular by the East Coast rap clique. Nas was the king of East Coast rap and anytime that someone mentions New York or the East Coast, they will be talking about Nas. “Halftime” has these intriguing horn pops that go in synchronization with the hook and it truly makes the track come alive.
All over Illmatic there is an enormous amount of Jazz horns being played over the beats and it gives the feeling of something like a street performer playing in the wee hours of the night. The horns compliment each beat so well, making every track feel similar in style, but entirely different in tone. Each track feels so layered and it was nearly impossible not to fall in love with each one. It was no question seeing why Illmatic is still talked about today as one of the greatest records of all time.
Nas then continues on with the theme of the older days with “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park.” The beat rather than having horns that flare up, has a great use of vocal samples and record scratching to fill the empty space. Nas strikes again with another great verse and throughout the whole of Illmatic, there is not one single verse that feels lacking or not fleshed out. Nas did an incredible job with each track, making his story relatable and understandable by all. Nas takes the listener to New York, shows him the situations, and the finally proves why Nas was and still is The King of New York.