Like fiction, the best hip hop -- albums that persist beyond the noise of their release, lyricists whose lines take residence in your consciousness long after the record has stopped spinning -- transports you from whatever mundane existence you inhabit and into the world of the artist.
All music does that to a degree, of course, but hip hop does it with more urgency, more immediacy, more fervor. And no rap album has done it better than Nas' classic, Illmatic.
For a rural kid too young for rap's genesis, whose early exposure was Bobby Brown's "On Our Own" from the Ghostbusters II soundtrack and whatever you'd call what Kriss Kross was doing, I came to Illmatic late. But I'm glad I was grown when I first heard it.
For something so entrenched in the feeling of being trapped in a place when/because you're young, Illmatic is an unusually adult album, exceptional because Nas himself was only twenty years old when it was released. And with twenty years having passed since its release, I can now look back and see it was the best album of 1994, Jeff Buckley and Portishead and Pavement be damned. It creates its own template. It has its own gravity.
It helps that Illmatic is so clearly of a place and time, so rooted in the physical -- chiefly the real, physical struggle of growing up in an area as oppressive as Queensbridge public housing development in New York City. Shit is serious in ways that so many other records fail to achieve.
You can smell musty hallways on this record, the spilt whatever-it-was snagging dust in the corners. You can hear the trickle of the Heineken when Nas pours it out on the cracked pavement for his crew. Somehow this gesture remains fresh, still feels wounded and profound.
And at the center of everything is Nas himself, our eyes and ears to this world: vulnerable but self-assured, scared and, at turns, scary, lost in himself in a haze of weed smoke. In it and of it but able to see it from some distance, too. In short, the perfect narrator.
That so many people who have connected with Illmatic -- this writer included -- have little or no exposure to Nas' urban experience only speaks to the storytelling's enduring strength, its transcendence. His voice is honed in that world. He's not dumbing anything down, but he doesn't take the audience's understanding for granted, either.
When he says, "In the P.J.s, my blend tape plays, bullets are strays, young bitches is grazed," it's Nas' thirst to share that experience that makes it last. And you could spill all sorts of ink using that as a knock against it, as if universality were something to avoid, but the fact remains that he paints that picture with a vividness that only a few rappers -- hell, all musicians -- have managed to match.
Nas is always on the corner, and the corners are all jagged. Illmatic lets you sidle up next to him for a little while, and the world is yours.
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