nas illmatic

On the 20th anniversary of Illmatic, Complex and Hennessy asked Miss Info to revisit her favorite moments of Nas’ landmark debut album, which you can read here. But myself and Mikey Fresh decided to join Miss Info and share our own picks for best beats, best verses, best samples and much more below…


Miss Info: “Halftime”

We appreciate the work that all Illmatic’s maestros put in, the Premos, the Q-tips, and Large Pros and all. But context makes these beats even sweeter, so just wrap your mind around the fact that in 1994, during those “Walkman” days, almost everyone entered Nas’ world through a bulky, plastic, portable cassette or CD player, his rhymes pumped through some shitty sponge-capped headphones or buzzy boombox.

But whether via Sony or Coby, Large Professor’s drums still wrapped you up in an invisible hood, those 808s filling your inner cochlea, shaking your brain stem, snare drums tapping away at your molars. The beat pushed every other thought in your head to the side. Besides that, the horns on “Halftime” kept it trendy. All the masters from Eric B. to Pete Rock were doing them. But it’s Extra P’s jingling bells that were unique. That constant ringing, like a salvation army solicitation, was a reminder of Nas’ hunger.

Not to over think the thing, but “Halftime” was and is a beautiful thing to hear.

Andy B.: “The World Is Yours”

“The World Is Yours” seems like the obvious choice with it being more melodic than everything else on the album, but good God did Pete Rock snap on this one. The crispy snares, the skillful scratches and, of course, those keys. The way Pete dipped the beat during Nas’ verses gave his rhymes that extra punch, too. With it being almost in the middle of the tracklisting, I’ve always seen “The World Is Yours” as an “interval”; the song that lets you feel good about the world for a minute before you dive back into the tales of struggle and suffering.

Mikey Fresh: “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”

It’s a toss up for me between “N.Y. State of Mind” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” but I have to go with the latter. It’s just such a complex beat compared to the rest of the album. From the number of samples (MJ, Kool and The Gang, etc) to the use of jazz horns, Large Professor built this composition like a mad scientist.




Andy B.: “Life’s a Bitch”

I only discovered Illmatic when I was about 13 or 14. Don’t shoot me, I was still in diapers when the album came out. But even as a teenager, I instantly gravitated to “Life’s a Bitch.” The beat is just so euphoric and obviously Nas and AZ’s verses are as close to lyrical perfection as we’ll ever get as rap fans. The intricate delivery, the powerful hook and the wisdom and perspective in their rhymes just puts you in that zone. Nas was kicking game, but AZ had the best verse on this one. Fight me.

Mikey Fresh: “Memory Lane”

For me, it’s “Memory Lane,” and I know I will be criticized. But this songs paints the clearest picture of Queensbridge and Nas’ childhood. Just like a reporter from CNN, Nas’ wordplay clearly describes what it was like being a young kid growing up in the world’s “largest housing project.”



Miss Info: “Memory Lane”

“My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses.
Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real.
A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja.
Here’s my basis my razor embraces, many faces,
You’re telephone-blown, Black,
Stitches or fat shoelaces.”

I love that Nas acknowledges his place, in the window. He’s doomed, he’s dulling the pain, but he’s aware.
And that last part is the best because it is so specific to New York City in 1994. I remember kids carrying razor blades in their mouth, spitting them out in a crowded club with a puff of air, slicing another kid’s face from ear to the corner of the mouth…

That’s why, contrary to what all the lyric websites tell you, Nas is not saying that his telephone is “blowing.” He’s saying “telephone blown,” meaning your face has been blown wide open with a telephone cut (also known as a buck-fifty, because of the number of stitches you’d need). The last line refers to your scar, either stitched up or left with a puffy “shoelace” keloid.

Pure head crack. That verse makes you work to keep up.

Andy B.: “N.Y. State of Mind”

Man, this is definitely the hardest question of the bunch. But if I had to pick one, it’ll be the first verse on “N.Y. State of Mind.” I mean, “Inflicting composition/Of pain, I’m like Scarface, sniffing cocaine/Holding an M16, see with the pen I’m extreme.” Aside from the fact that he’s pulling somersaults like a Romanian gymnast, which 20-year-old has that type of shit in their head? From the very first verse on the album, it was overwhelmingly apparent this dude was born to rap.

Mikey Fresh: AZ on “Life’s a Bitch”

Sorry, but it goes to the album’s only guest feature: AZ. Nasir is poet, that’s not even the question here. However, the flow and vocabulary that The Visualizer brought to “Life’s a Bitch” owned the track. The man hasn’t spit a nicer 16 since.




Andy B.: 

The start of “N.Y. State of Mind” when Nas says, “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap/Where fake n***as don’t make it back… Fuck it, I don’t know how to start this shit.” I always wondered whether Nas genuinely didn’t know how to start this, but then I read that interview with Premo where he confirmed it, and it blew my mind. The fact that he spit some of the best opening bars I’ve ever heard unprepared, and in one take, is just insane.

Mikey Fresh: 

Without question it’s when the intro ends and “N.Y. State of Mind” begins. From that moment, when the pianos and snares kick in, you know what it’s about to go down. Now it might not have grabbed you on your first listen, but think about it: no matter how many times you press play on “The Genesis,” you know the next 9 songs about going to be perfect.



Miss Info: “One Love”

This category is one of the few with an obvious winner. “One Love” is a song that starts out like the shoutouts segment of Video Music Box and then turns into a vivid bedtime story for child sociopaths. In an era before Gmail and Facebook, Nas makes “One Love” a sort of musical message board. He speaks to his friends in jail, with their fascinating New York 90’s nicknames:

Black, Cormega (foreshadowing future collabo with Cormega and Kamakazee, Nas raps “on the reals, all these crab n***as know the deal…”), Herb, Ice, Bullet, Born, Lake Lucciano, Big Bo, Oogie. He fills them in on the latest gossip, documents their daily routines, uses all the coded lingo that jail mail requires. But the best imagery comes in the 3rd verse:

I sat back like the mack, my army suit was black…
We was chilling on these benches where he pumped his loose cracks
I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard
Keeps me blasted, and starts talking mad shit
I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him
Cause when the pistol blows the one that’s murdered be the cool one
Tough luck when n—as are struck, families fucked up
Coulda caught your man, but didn’t look when you bucked up…
Shorty’s laugh was cold blooded as he spoke so foul
Only twelve, trying to tell me that he liked my style
Then I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes
Then froze only to blow the herb smoke through my nose

The picture painted is so crisp, it’s no surprise it ended up in Belly. I always loved the idea of a world-weary 19-year-old talking to a patronizing 12-year-old about the “bad old days.”

Andy B.: “N.Y. State of Mind”

Obviously “One Love” is the truest piece of storytelling on Illmatic, and I think Miss Info and Mikey both illustrated that perfectly, so I’ll tip my hat to “N.Y. State of Mind.” We all know Nas’ music is based off an observer’s perspective. Like his BFF Shawn Carter once said, “N***a, you ain’t live it/You witnessed it from your folks’ pad.” But the way he captured the ruthless, life-or-death nature of the projects felt like an adrenaline-packed action movie: “Once they caught us off-guard, the Mac-10 was in the grass/And I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin.” I didn’t grow up in New York City, but bumping Illmatic — and specifically “N.Y. State of Mind” — teleported me into the heart of Queensbridge Houses in a flash.

Mikey Fresh: “One Love”

“One Love” takes that crown. Not only did Nas name drop Cormega, who became somewhat of a mythical character at the time, but you can picture Nas sitting in his project stairwell, dressed in army fatigues and a skully hat, penning that jail letter on crumbled legal-pad paper. The specific names of people and the chain of events included feel too real to be fiction. You really believe that everything that he rapped about.



Miss Info: “Represent”

Illmatic has been both highly rated and underrated at the same time. For an album that has been included on nearly every “greatest album” list since it came out in 1994, it took 7 years to go platinum, and only ever reached 12 on the Billboard 200 chart. None of the mainstream success that Snoop’s Doggystyle debut had one year earlier.

So, to me, it seems like all of the songs were underrated. But I guess since I have to pick one, “Represent” is one of my favorites off the album and I rarely hear people say the same. This song, especially with all the call-and-response from Nas’ crew throughout, feels like an “Illmatic” mission statement. It’s a chain gang anthem, a locker-room pep rally, a gang initiation ceremony, a college fight song. Nas is in the middle of the huddle but we’re all expected to sing along when the chorus comes.

Andy B.: “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)”

As a ’90s baby, Illmatic is this absolutely essential rap album; it’s the holy grail of hip-hop. Which is why it’s so surprising to learn that, as Miss Info points out,  the album sold poorly and took almost a decade to earn the plaque it deserved from the jump (I guess rap fans haven’t changed, huh?) But I think it’s fair to say that Illmatic has left a much larger footprint on the game that its sales suggest, so it’s hard to really call any track “slept-on.”

But I’ll go with “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park),” simply because it was neither released as a single nor is it really a party jam. It’s the perfect track to play when you’re just kicking back and chilling because you can tell that’s what Nas was doing when he wrote it — sitting on the park bench, puffing on a blunt while “taking n***as on a trip, straight through memory lane.”

Mikey Fresh: “One Time 4 Your Mind”

“One Time 4 Your Mind” is rarely mentioned, but Nas put in work with his animated flow and slick lines. The beat may have been too laid back for most. He kills it with bars like, “Y’all n***as was born/I shot my way out my mom dukes.”



Miss Info:

I have so many favorite verses from Illmatic, but not many that I consider “punchlines.” Punchlines insinuate a joke is being told, and as sharp as Nas is on every line of this album, I don’t think he’s making jokes. He’s not trying to be “clever”. There are no “triple entendres.” I’m a fan of verses that aren’t as funny but still compelling:

“When it’s my time to go, I wait for God with the .44…” (“Halftime”)
“Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazin’…” (“It Ain’t Hard To Tell”)

Andy B.:

“You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/That’s like Malcolm X, catching the Jungle Fever.” ‘Nuff said.




Andy B.: “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”

Large Professor is seriously a fool for this one. Let me remind you that I’m a ’90s baby, so I heard “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” before I heard Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (I had his Number Ones CD though, don’t get it twisted), so the sample flew over my head at first. But I definitely came to appreciate how Extra P flipped those airy (and incredibly corny — sorry!) synths. They complimented the drums nicely. Adding those horns from Kool & The Gang’s “N.T.” was so clutch, too.

Mikey Fresh: “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”

Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on “It Ain’t Hard Tell.” Large Professor used five samples, but this is the one I love the most.



Miss Info:

I could go on for days talking about all the incredible slang on Illmatic. So many of Nas’ words and phrases have become embedded in our collective vernacular. “I’m a Nike head,” “disciple of the street,” “half-man half-amazing” and “sleep is the cousin of death” have been referenced and sampled to exhaustion (some of the time, by Nas himself).

But my favorite Illmatic lingo are the words that are frozen in time. Exquisite corpses of the early 90’s. Like referring to your head as a “cabbage.” Calling your friend “baby paw.” Ending a list with “this, that, and the third.” Describing yourself as “lamping big willie style.” And even better are Nas’ humble street dreams…

On “Represent,” Nas brags that when it comes to his personal style, his gear is “never nothing less than Guess.” What’s that jacket? Margiela? No, it’s acid-washed denim from Manhattan Mall! On “The World Is Yours,” Nas brags about “…cruising in a six cab or Montero jeep.” Nowadays, D-list rappers claim to have Bugatti’s and private jets. Back then, Nas is proud he’s not taking the subway, he’s riding in gypsy cabs or a Mitsubishi SUV, a P.O.S. so out of favor, I was forced to rent one at the airport in Nicaragua last year.

But far from being signs of struggle, these are the tiny details that make Nas’ debut so real and so important. As instant and endless as a Robert Frank photograph of the Queensbridge Houses from 1994.

Andy B.:

“I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners/Hennessey holders and old school niggas, then I be dissing a/Unofficial that smoke woolie thai/I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by coke head cutie pie.” You kids are lucky to have Rap Genius.

Mikey Fresh:

“Now wait, another dose and you might be dead/And I’m a Nike head, I wear chains that excite the Feds.” As a sneaker fiend, I loved the Nike references, but to hear Nas mention the authorities as “the Feds” is still something rappers use to this day. In reality, he was probably used to petty street cops versus Federal agents.