Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
“Captivating” is the single word I think of when describing what in my opinion is hip-hop’s greatest album. The word holds true from the moment the LP commences with DJ Premier’s opening beat on “NY State of Mind” coupled with Nas’ sinister bars: “rappers, I monkey flip ‘em, wit the funky rhythm I be kickin’ / musician, inflictin’ composition of pain / I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine / hand me an M-16, see wit a pen I’m extreme.” The first time I heard this, it was obvious that this was a different musical experience altogether.
If you lived through the release and ensuing penetration of Illmatic you may recall the comparisons to other New York City lyrical legends like Rakim and Kool G. Rap. In retrospect, dare I say Illmatic bore an artist that eclipsed even these indisputable legends.
Nas’ grim storytelling literally transported you into the uncomfortable seat on a bench outside of a Queensbridge project building, forcing you to watch kids mourn the recent death of a close friend, witness over-zealous arrest tactics of the New York City Housing Police, or placed you at a kitchen table as a friend constructed a prison bound letter to a comrade locked away.
Heralded for its superior lyricism, Illmatic is arguably also the finest produced hip-hop album of all-time, with some of the greatest of the game exchanging seats behind the boards, including Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, Main Source’s Large Professor, Pete Rock, and fellow QB native L.E.S.
All in his freshman attempt, Nasir Jones impacted not only the seriousness of his contemporaries’ penmanship, but also the very composition of their albums. Illmatic became such an urban phenomenon that it helped push the careers of course of its only guest contributor, AZ, but also those merely mentioned during the LP, including Lakey the Kid, Cormega, and the Bravehearts.
Illmatic is hip-hop in its superior form, with an indelible impact that can never be duplicated.