The closest that Illmatic offers to an ars poetica: "Genesis" sets the stage with a sample from the street's disciple, but right before the album starts in earnest with "N.Y. State of Mind" you can hear, real low, "I don't know how to start this shit."
The story goes that Illmatic debuted at a time when The Source was in its pomp and didn't want to give perfect scores to anyone, let alone some unsigned twenty-year-old. But with the advance release of Illmatic on their system, the editors let go of the old rules, and called it what it was: five mics.
There's another album and another story that keeps coming back around from that time: The Chronic represented everything agenda-setting about hip-hop at the time. Rolling Stone makes the claim that The Chronic is, at #138, nearly three hundred places better and/or more important than Illmatic. But The Source knew right away what the score was. They gave a young Nas the five mics—the declaration an album was a supreme classic, benchmark, institution—where they didn't opt to break the policy for The Chronic. There's a reason for that.
And a big part of it has to do with the crew of NY legends doing sublime work behind the beats; and it's got something to do with the rumble of the train passing through; it has to do with the jazz solos and it has something to do with the album's author, his block, and the meeting of history and future in his sound. The young Nas overlaid atop the Queensbridge projects gives a prophetic sensibility to the album cover. Everything about Illmatic represents.
Jeff Weiss, writing in 2013 for Pitchfork, says that the album doesn't leave the block, but if you listen close, all the hoods and crews show up. The phrase repeated on "Memory Lane" is, after all, "comin' outta Queensbridge." As in it starts here, but there's no telling where it ends. Nas himself says he always knew he was born to leave the block, to travel the city, to hear and see what everyone else was up to. "And I'm from Queensbridge, been many places," he says. The block matters, but the orientation is towards the world. The curiosity gives the album a big force against sadness. Ill will may be gone, but there's a big world out there, and life left to live.
The five mic award has got to have something to do with the fact that Nas plays something of the role of, not reporter, but real-time-historian perhaps. He relays traumatic events and damning allegations alike with neither hyperbole nor judgment, but always as they relate to the arc of the block. He is in Queensbridge, steeped in its history, but always makes his way around town, and the sound he's cultivated is richer for it.
Played back-to-back against Illmatic, The Chronic sounds a lot less groundbreaking, earth-shattering, and cry-it-from-the-hilltops than the constant eulogizing suggests. And that's not to say that some of what came next for Nas didn’t sounded like pop next to his early work (not to say that "Hate Me Now" isn't great pop). For that reason, maybe it makes sense to keep them far apart. But make no mistake: Illmatic raps with a razor under its tongue. Who looks good next to that?
Certainly, we're not trying to say there's no place for pop in this world. But when someone keeps shit that real, arranging not just beats, but big questions, big opposed forces? When we argue with others, it's rhetoric, but when we argue within the soul, it's poetry. That's what Yeats says, anyhow. I reckon we got to call Nas' sensibilities poetic in that regard. Pure, molten intuition.
Satisfaction with the world comes only from the elements of the line falling delightfully—unthinkably, even—into place. Fragments arranged against the unanswerable, if you want to call it that. The menace and the tangible sense of mortality run deep; the sense of wonder is charged up; the rhymes are tight. There's no calling this pop.
Here's why it matters: let it run through your ears. Use headphones, or find somewhere you can listen: first, put on the big, loping, saccharine hooks of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys in "Empire State of Mind." Now, get Illmatic. "N.Y. State of Mind."
Seriously, try it. "There's nothing you can't do, now that you're in New York. These streets will make you feel brand new. The lights will inspire you."
"The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps...I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death." The closest he offers to a final thought can't touch "Empire State of Mind" for sheer vacuity and the normal empty platitudes thrown at the City of New York on a regular basis. All Nas wants you to know is that "nothing's equivalent to the New York State of Mind."
Nas's New York is devoid of pop-savvy swagger, devoid of claims to glamor. It's downright bleak at times. But with Nas there's no irony, no condemnation, no shame, no plastic reveling, no glorifying. Instead, Nas observes, thinks, offers subtle prescriptives, wrapped in the rich flow that he was known for. "The streets had me stressed something terrible," he says.
There's no lights to inspire where the young Nas is at—he lets us know "I'm livin' where the nights are jet black."
So what keeps the despair from taking over? What steers a line like "life's a bitch and then you die" away from trite pessimism?
Whatever it is, it's a fine line. There's a richness to the production and to the lines themselves that never falls far out of reach. Nas didn't invent jazz-rap. He just did it best. And he did it when everyone was trying to do G-Funk. For his troubles, he couldn't get an album deal. So finely was it balanced that the reasons for passing on Illmatic that keep coming up contradict each other: he was too hard, and he was also too meshed up in the soft, old East Coast sound.
What's a record executive good for, anyway, if we're in the age when they have no room to sell what they acknowledge as good, but not market ready? The world has passed a record exec by, but Nas tells you on the intro track, "Genesis," that when the shit is real, you do it without a contract. The thoughtful quality that informs the lines throughout each of the album's nine tracks suggests that he means it.
The speaker is thoughtful as hell, even as he recounts moments of crisis—running through the building lobby, "probably full of children / I couldn't see as high as I be"—in the active world and prone to moments of detached revelation—he's certainly no mere reporter. He reveals with evenhandedness, but there’s too much familiarity, too much resignation—he’s too close to just report, no matter how flatly the words themselves fall into flow.
If we talk a lot of shit about Jay-Z for "Empire State of Mind," we can also add that he's got some of the great one-liners to add enough introspection (only just): "Like God give a fuck: I'm just a crook on a song." But Nas has always pondered deeper while rhyming harder: "Woke up early on my born day...my physical frame is celebrated cause I made it one quarter through life some Godly-like thing created."
—Aaron & Jordan Fallon