Album Review: Illmatic

(Image via Amazon)

(Image via Amazon)

Jelani Dupon, Writer

Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, or just Nas, is an American rapper, investor, entrepreneur, and songwriter. Nas was born September 14, 1973, in Crown Heights, New York. Growing up in the grimy streets of the East Coast, he saw too much for his own good. He felt he had to tell his story and give everyone a glimpse of the bitter world that is often discarded. This birthed this debut album, Illmatic (1994). Among its release, it got popularity and praise, and to this day is considered one of, if not the best, pound-for-pound albums of all time. The record is full of heavy lyrics and complex symbolism, and it only feels right to deconstruct it.

“N.Y State of Mind” is the first song in the album if you don’t count the introductory track. This song is about the mentality of New York and how the crime and bad habits are considered normal for that area. Nas says  “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death. Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined. I think of crime when I’m in a New York State of Mind.” perfectly reflects the sad norms in N.Y culture that Nas grew up seeing, as well as all the paranoia that it causes for people. This song gives a perfect perspective to the listener and sets the mood for the album very well.

The fourth track on the album, “The World Is Yours”, is the most popular song on the album, and with good reason. In this song, Nas talks about the rough and hard life he’s been through, how bad choices are tempting him, and also how he is getting tired of living the life that he leads. Two quotes stick out in this song, both in the third and final verse. The first one says “I’m the young city bandit, hold myself down single-handed.” Nas is saying that he doesn’t need a crew of people to protect him, he doesn’t need his friends or any bodyguards to keep him safe. He’s also telling you that he got where he is by himself, and all the success he receives is from his own doing. He goes deeper into this with the second quote “Born alone, dies alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne.” Nas again references that it’s been just him his whole life, and he doesn’t have a supporting cast to help him. One of the great things about this album is how big of a message Nas sends out without saying too much. Every word has a meaning, nothing is wasted.

After all the grey and dark beats and verses, Nas lightens the tone in an interesting way with the seventh track, In the song “One Love (feat Q-Tip)”Nas is writing to his friend who is serving time in prison. The melody of the song is very calm, which goes well with Nas’s laid-back delivery. This song is all about imagery and displays the pain that friends or family members of people incarcerated feel. “I hate it when your moms cry, it kinda makes me want to murder, for real, I even got a mask and gloves to bust slugs, but one love” Nas is saying that hearing his friend’s mom crying makes him so infuriated he could kill, he could do it if he wanted to but he doesn’t want to put his own mom in the same place as his friends’ mom. This line is sentimental and shows true love for his friend even though he messed up. Later in the third verse, Nas talks about the consequences of murder, “ I had to school him, told him don’t let them fool him, ‘cause when the pistol blows, the one that’s murdered be the cool one” This line could actually have two meanings depending on how you interpret it. The most popular meaning is that he is saying that murdering someone isn’t something to brag about, and it’s not cool, because the person in front of the gun will be remembered, while the person behind it won’t. However, there could be another meaning behind the line, Nas could be telling this kid to be merciless and cold-blooded. This works with the last part of the line when he says “the one that’s murdered is the cool one” which could be a play on words – ‘cool’ as in ‘cold’ that represents the temperature of a corpse.

Nas is a master of imagery and lyrical schemes, he can put you in his shoes while saying very little. Every song on this album could be deconstructed with basically every line, that’s what’s so incredible about it, there wasn’t a wasted word. Ten brutal stories packed into less than forty minutes is a hard thing to do, and that’s why many people consider it the best pound-for-pound rap album of all time.