Nas is Illmatic

April, 2015 · By Lyshaan Hall

“Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap”

Nas, New York State of Mind



Lyshaan Hall


New York City: 1994
Let’s visit the Queensbridge Houses. The “world’s most largest and most notorious projects,” Queensbridge is located on 21st Street in Long Island City, in the westernmost area of Queens. In the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Queens, Queensbridge is home to almost 7 thousand people, including notable rappers Cormega, Mobb Deep, MC Shan, Marley Marl and of course, Nas.
Born Nasir Jones in 1973, Nas was signed by Columbia Records and began recording his debut album in 1992. Illmatic was released in 1994, debuting at #12 on the Billboard 200 charts. The album sold a measly 59,000 it’s first week. It took two years for the album to sell enough to be certified Gold. Despite it’s initially lukewarm commercial success, Illmatic received rave reviews from critics. Nas’ lyrical ability shines from both a technical and contextual perspective. The internal rhymes schemes are deft and fluid, as Nas weaves his way through the now classically NYC sounding production. When people talk about the classic New York sound of hip-hop, albums like Illmatic set that precedent. The sounds are raw and creative. The list of producers is a who’s who of New York greats: DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip.
Illmatic tells the story of the street hustler in the thick of his career as a criminal. Our narrator takes us through the streets of New York City, describing with living accuracy the grit and grime of the street dweller. Written and recorded throughout the end of Nas’ teenage years, Illmatic captures the essence of the transition into manhood. The voice is braggadocios, but not completely ascended. There are frequent references to what Nas used to do, as in “Represent”:
Everyday’s a different plan that had us running from cops/ If it wasn’t hanging out in front of cocaine spots/ we was at the candy factory, breaking the locks
The implication is that childhood mischief would lead to more serious crime later in life. Nas goes on;
“Nowadays, I need the green in a flash just like the next man/ Fuck a yard God, let me see a hundred grand/ Could use a gun son, but fuck being the wanted man/ But if I hit rock bottom then I’mma be the Son of Sam/”
Nas is doing a couple things here. Firstly, he is differentiating himself from the innocence of childhood. He is no longer satisfied with stealing candy and a hundred dollar bill (a yard) and his activities are more nefarious now. Referencing the prolific 1970s NYC serial killer David Berkowitz is another connection to Nas’ childhood. Secondly, he explains that when push comes to shove, he’ll do whatever he needs to succeed. He has yet to see a hundred grand and hitting rock bottom is still very much a possibility. Nothing is guaranteed and Nas is prepared if worse comes to worse.


Lyshaan Hall

Through Nas’ vivid first-person depiction of his life and experiences, we see a broader picture of life in urban squalor in the 1990s. He takes us into his apartment, into the stash houses, on the corners, in the stair wells. We feel, hear and see what Nas and his contemporaries were feeling, hearing and seeing. It’s a document of that space: an anthology of street life. The goal isn’t to be a rap star. It’s to show the world what was going on in Queensbridge at the time. We learn that by seeing the city through Nas’ eyes. He is frustrated and angst ridden. All 19 year olds feel a level of angst, as they are transitioning into real adulthood, but Nas’ struggle is more unique. He is the artist surrounded by death. Nas’ is attempting to claw his way out of the pit. It is not a completely unique story though; the rose that grew from the concrete.
Tupac rapped about it. Langston Hughes wrote about it. Basquiat painted about it. Spike Lee made movies about it. And Nas gave us Illmatic.
Pitchfork magazine music writer, Jeff Weiss wrote,
“[A] baby-faced Buddha monk in public housing, scribbling lotto dreams and grim reaper nightmares in dollar notebooks, words enjambed in the margins. The only light is the orange glow of a blunt, bodega liquor, and the adolescent rush of first creation. Sometimes his pen taps the paper and his brain blanks. In the next sentence, he remembers dark streets and the noose.”
And always, the story is told within the walls of Queensbridge.