On Illmatic Nas shows a level of self awareness that may have never before or since been matched on a rap record. It is the ghost that Nas himself and rap as a whole have been chasing since it dropped. It may have been the last really important album in rap. Sure there have been plenty of great albums, some that may even be better since illmatic was released, but none have captured its depth or resonated in the same way.
For years I have wondered what set this album apart from all the others. What was it about the 10 songs so perfectly crafted that made this record so special. We have certainly seen better records before and since, but they tend to be over the top sonic productions. Illmatic in its entirety is understated. It is an every-man approach to rap music. The music oozes with the time and place it was constructed and Nas delivers a performance often saved for the greatest authors. It helps that he is a technically proficient rapper but what was most important about this album is that he told his story, in the simplest terms that when combined with the music was nothing less than elegant.
Elegant isnâ€™t a word usually associated with rap music, especially rap music that matters. Illmatic contains none of the bombast of say an NWA or PE; it doesnâ€™t go the arty conscious route that so many critics and college age white kids seem to cream over. It is simply the inner workings of a young man defining his place in a world that is often alienating, cruel and dark. In many ways it is the most mature rap album ever made, and could be a perfect companion piece with the number 7 entry Buhloone Mindstate in that they are deeply personal albums that deal with internal issues and emotions without being maudlin. Where Buhloone Mindstate presents this for the artist in their later 20s, Illmatic does so for the artist in their late teens, early 20s. The sad thing is that we still havenâ€™t found an artist that can take this dynamic and make a good album for the 30 or 40 year old set the way say a Tom Waits or Will Oldham can.
I originally had this album at number six. I have played it so much over the years that it is just completely played out to me. I needed to step outside of myself and take in the album for what it was, as well as ignore what Nas has become. There was so much potential for Nas after this album, sadly he has never lived up to any of it.