I was seven years old when Columbia Records unleashed “Illmatic” in to the world, forever changing ‘Best Rap Album’ lists for millions of hip hop fans. Therefore this review is coming from a ‘younger’ perspective that has grown up knowing that just the word “Illmatic” brings forth such adjectives as ‘legendary’ and ‘classic’, and remains many hip hop fans’ favourite ever album. I’m one of those that went backwards after hearing 2001’s “Stillmatic” to explore earlier work from Nas and ultimately found his debut actually lived up to the endless hype that still surrounds it to this day. Along with A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory”, it’s an album I just can’t get tired of. I wasn’t the only one that caught “Illmatic” later than Columbia Records expected, as it eventually went platinum in 2001, seven years after release when Nas reminded everybody just how talented an emcee he is following Jay-Z’s “one hot record every ten year average” statement. But twenty years on from this genre-defining record’s release, does it still remain relevant in 2014 where the sound of hip hop has changed multiple times? Does it sound dated? Can it convince a new generation of rap fans that’s fed hundreds of albums each year to spend their dollars on an album that’s half as long as most full-lengths?
Predictably, the answer is a resounding “Yes” – and one of Daniel Bryan magnitude. “Illmatic” is hip hop’s top trump card. If you want to put a “Reasonable Doubt”, “Ready To Die” or “Enter the Wu-Tang” up against it, you’ll lose. “Illmatic” is superior simply because it is a flawless example of an emcee and a producer bringing their A-game constantly over the course of 9 tracks (ignoring the intro). There’s no dreaded skits where you awkwardly sit there listening to Christopher Wallace being fellated, or having to hear a dodgy Scarface impersonation, or the initially funny yet inevitably (and ironically) annoying ‘torture skit’ from Meth and co. With “Illmatic” you received a snapshot of hip hop – it was a journey through New York’s run-down neighbourhoods at the end of the crack epidemic. It was cinematic, driven by an unrivalled ability to narrate this environment to others from such a young mind that feels like it has already witnessed a lifetime of struggle. It just grabbed the listener and never let go. But it was also a part of hip hop’s golden era, a time where the genre had moved on from the 1980s experiments with rock and roll and electronic sounds. Whereas revered New York albums such as “Paid In Full”, “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” and “Criminal Minded” can now sound dated, 1994 can largely still be revisited without needing to have been there. That is thanks to a stellar and arguably unmatched line-up of now legendary production talent. Pete Rock, Q-Tip, DJ Premier and Large Professor reads off like a Mount Rushmore of beat-makers. Perhaps this is what makes “Illmatic” such a refined record – it also acts as a multi-coursed meal whereby the listener can sample the delicacies of a Pete Rock & CL Smooth track, then move straight into some Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest and some Main Source. At 35+ minutes, it’s no buffet – but the recipe was that moreish you would happily digest each course ten, twenty or fifty times over. To continue the culinary metaphor, “Illmatic XX” maintains the original recipe but also throws in a selection of courses on the second disc from chefs that can certainly cook, but aren’t able to capture that Michelin-starred moment that “Illmatic” boasted throughout.
“Illmatic XX” is not a remastered version of an out-of-print gem that’s hard to get hold of, so there’s no real benefit to hearing the first disc here, as opposed to the original recordings from 1994. This also isn’t the first time Nas has reminded us of his debut album either, with the “10 Year Anniversary” that also boasted remixes and two bonus songs in “On The Real” and “Star Wars”. There was also the remix EP “From Illmatic to Stillmatic” which included some of the songs available on the second disc of this release. In fact, the best “Illmatic” of recent times came not from Nas but from Detroit emcee Elzhi. Teaming with Will Sessions on “El-matic”, Elzhi delivered an excellent spin on “Illmatic” which combined live instrumentation with Elzhi’s own version of the acclaimed Nas verses, and it’s hard to believe that this was initially offered to fans for free! Therefore “Illmatic XX” feels even more disappointing than it should do, as the bonus material included here just doesn’t do “Illmatic” justice. It’s like buying a 20th Anniversary DVD of Pulp Fiction (as an example) and receiving a bonus DVD that doesn’t include a documentary, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast.
Knowing the RapReviews.com audience are an educated bunch, you’ll probably know all of what I’ve written already (and probably more). “Illmatic” is of course, a must-own album that every hip hop debut is unfairly compared to somewhere along the line. Although I’m aware some readers prefer 1996’s “It Was Written” to this ‘rougher around the edges’ predecessor, it is widely considered that Nas has never quite captured that lightning in a bottle feeling of “Illmatic”. The first disc of “Illmatic XX” is the original “Illmatic”. It’s been remastered from source tapes, but unless you’re a pedantic audiophile there really isn’t much difference to the CD you can pick up in any bargain bin around the world. “Represent” still provides goosebumps with vivid imagery in lines such as “â€¦still pissing in your elevator” and a cocky demeanour that never felt obnoxious – “the school dropout, never liked the shit from day one”. Other Premier productions (“Memory Lane” and “NY State of Mind”) remain examples of the duo’s chemistry that to this day, fuel rumours of a collaborative album. “NY State of Mind” in particular is just one of those songs that any fan of rap can show to non-rap fans as an example of the genre at its best. It’s poetry in motion and the pace is relentless, but what’s more surprising is how Premier used a one-bar loop for over four minutes without feeling repetitive. The one song that falls victim to age though perhaps more than most is “One Time 4 Your Mind”. Much like listening to a Lord Finesse album, or early Big L – “One Time 4 Your Mind” is very much an early 90s piece of hip hop that doesn’t quite have the timeless production the rest of the album does. Having not listened to “Illmatic” for a while, that song does seem to have lost some of its edge.
Moving on to the second disc, we are treated to a track called “I’m A Villain” which is available all over the Internet as part of the “Nasty Nas demo” that featured recordings by Nas a few years before “Illmatic” was released. The beat is fairly primitive, even by early 90s standards and is intentionally designed to showcase Nas’ lyrical ability. Unfortunately, it borders on some humourless Big L vibe with verses that fail to really leave a mark. The ingredients were there with the tight flow and street narrative, but the direction wasn’t on this one. Proof that Nas was raised right by hip hop, he jumps on a local radio station to promote “Illmatic” in October 1993 with a sketchy freestyle for Stretch & Bobbito. The rest of the second disc is made up of 12″ vinyl single remixes that vary in quality. “Halftime (Butcher Remix)” is very similar to the original, but doesn’t possess the playfulness of Large Professor’s classic (the beat drops, the horns between verses aren’t quite up to the likes of a Pete Rock production). There really is no need for three remixes of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, as good as that track is. What sounds like Biz Markie is chopped in to “It Ain’t Hard To Tell (Remix)” alongside some even harder kicks and snares. “One Love” is remixed twice (both taken from the original 12″ vinyl release) with the LG Main Mix opting for soulful crooning that doesn’t really match the pacier rhymes. The One L Main Mix fares better with a piano loop adding sorrow to proceedings, and a welcome guest appears in the form of Brand Nubian’s Sadat X. Many of the remixes that appear are worthy of repeated listens and you can see why they were chosen for the original 12″ vinyl single releases, but the Arsenal mix of “Life’s a Bitch” is way too energetic for a song with a depressive mantra.
The original production from L.E.S. is understated and L.E.S. himself is never really mentioned alongside Premier and Large Pro when people talk about “Illmatic”, which is a shame. As jaw-dropping as AZ’s verse is, the production still holds up and hearing it remixed with no real consideration for the theme/topic that Nas and AZ follow is disappointing. The “The World Is Yours Tip Mix” is obviously a Q-Tip production, and it shows. The bouncy kicks scream A Tribe Called Quest and as great as Nas is, it doesn’t quite work with his complex flow. Two of the best remixes that appear come courtesy of the UK 12″ vinyl: “It Ain’t Hard To Tell (The Stink Mix)” was crafted by Dave Scratch and DJ Ron and is up there with the original in terms of quality. Where Large Professor threw together Kool & The Gang with some nostalgic sampling of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” to chilling effect, Dave Scratch and DJ Ron opt for a scruffy horn effect that suddenly flips in to a muffled organ and DJ Ron slicing up KRS-One on the turntables . It’s precisely how a remix should be done. The final song by the time you’ve heard all of “Illmatic XX” is also the fourth time you’ll hear Nas tell you his raps should be locked in a cell – “It Ain’t Hard To Tell (The Laidback Remix)” produced by The Creators is another strong variant on a classic that brings a Pete Rock style bass to proceedings. It is odd though that on this release, there are four versions of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” and it would have been nice to hear a different take on tracks such as “Memory Lane” and “One Time 4 Your Mind”.
Looking at some of the fan’s reception to the release of “Illmatic XX”, many have said that a disc of instrumentals or acapellas would have perhaps been preferable to a bunch of remixes. They have a point, and given that the main selling point of this release is those remixes it would have been nice to see an official release containing the vocals only (much like when Jay-Z released “The Black Album”). The chance for fans and budding DJs to mix Nas quotables with other instrumentals could have sparked countless inventive remixes rather than the good but inferior collection available here. Throwing some Nas over J Dilla, or seeing if he sounds right on some Madlib, or better yet running a competition on social media to find the definitive remixes of each song. There were many ways that “Illmatic” could have been celebrated that such a monumental record deserves, rather than re-releasing it with some remixes just because it happens to be twenty years later. If Nas ends up releasing the inevitable “Illmatic – 25th Anniversary Edition” in 2019, here’s what should go down: collate all the Nas tracks, verses and guest appearances from the years 1991 to 1994. I’m sure many Nas fans would love to enjoy his early work all in one place, and it could finally close the lid on “Illmatic” for good. Ideal tracklisting:
- A mix of Nas’ verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” and the original “Intro/The Genesis”
- N.Y. State of Mind
- Life’s A Bitch
- The World Is Yours
- Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)
- One Love
- One Time 4 Your Mind
- It Ain’t Hard To Tell
- Life Is Like a Dice Game
- Just Another Day In The Projects
- Deja vu
- Back to the Grill
- Everything is Real
- I’m a Villain
- Number One With a Bullet
- Nas Will Prevail
- On The Real
- One on One
This could probably all be put on to one CD too. Despite my personal gripes towards “Illmatic XX” and its offer of 12″ remixes, the hard copy benefits from some additions that the MP3 versions just can’t replicate. A whopping 24-page booklet, new artwork and some interesting insights in to the history behind “Illmatic”. It’s just a shame that the additional music on offer doesn’t quite equate to what should be an essential collector’s item.
Nas knows he’ll never make another “Illmatic” and has wisely avoided (other than the similar sounding “Stillmatic”) a sequel. We’ve received “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2”, “Marshall Mathers LP 2” and follow-ups to Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” but none of them have ever matched their previous namesakes. There’s NO reason to do an “Illmatic 2” other than to perhaps make an album with the same producers. “Illmatic” remains a relevant piece of hip hop, particularly the first line which still rings true: “what the fuck is this bullshit I’m hearing on the radio, man?” (eerily repeated by DJ Premier on Gang Starr’s “The Ownerz” ten years ago). The depth and intricacies of Nas’ rhymes retain their potency after all these years and it remains an essential purchase in 2014. For those that haven’t heard it in a while, it’s a good time to revisit a record that embodies everything great about hip hop. Considering “Illmatic” can be picked up for peanuts in any used CD store, the extra content is the major selling point here, but is it worth paying the extra money for that second disc? Not really, no. The beauty of the MP3-era is that you can just opt for the original MP3 album, which is undoubtedly cheaper and you can always pick up the track “I’m A Villain” from “Illmatic XX” separately.
Before I am castrated for not giving this album an automatic 10/10 rating, let me clarify why I have scored this record the way I have. “Illmatic” by Nas is a 10/10 classic hip hop album. It’s essential, and that’s undeniable. “Illmatic XX” when taken as a whole, isn’t. As a celebration of Nas’ seminal debut, it’s good but could have been better. I’m also going to put my neck on the chopping block and say that “One Time 4 Your Mind” fits snugly in with “Illmatic” but is the one song that hasn’t aged well – musically at least. “Illmatic” is probably the first album any fan of rap music should add to their collection, and it remains my favourite record in 2014 – it’s just if you already own the original, there’s not much I can recommend over the original other than the prospect of hearing some strong remixes of old favourites, one forgotten song from Nas’ alleged demo and a radio freestyle. Given that “Illmatic” is in any self-respecting hip hop fan’s collection already, it doesn’t feel acceptable. But on the off-chance you’ve not heard Nasir Jones at his nastiest, at his most gritty and arguably his best – pick this up. Or buy two copies of the original “Illmatic”, because you’ll be spinning it in another twenty years anyway.