Favourite Albums

Favourite Albums: Nas – Illmatic

Between the ages of twelve and seventeen, when I wasn’t drinking Frosty Jack’s down my garage (which was, at that time, kitted out with a couple of sofas, a plethora of stolen construction signs, and a collection of empty bottles of just about any spirit you can imagine), I could probably be found skateboarding somewhere. Every day, I’d walk home from school through the woods, get home, eat, get changed, and go straight back out on my board. There was a group of us who used to meet behind the local community centre, in the big, empty car park, and we’d alternately skate and smoke for hours. On the weekends, we’d jump on a bus to the local park and pretend like we knew what we were doing. (None of us were very good.) Often we’d skate for eight hours or more, and arrive home in the evening mortally tired, before heading back out in the evenings to the local rec (or The Garage) to see how far we could make it through a three-litre bottle of Sainsbury’s dry cider.

Looking back, they seem like simpler times, but when I was living them they didn’t feel so, and I recognise that it is merely nostalgia for bygone halcyon days which makes me feel thus. Some of my fondest memories were spent on snowy days at an underground car park just round the corner from the skatepark we used to frequent in Farnborough, tenderly named The UG. (Pronounceable as both an acronym and an initialism.) When the snow had been around for a couple of days, meaning sledging down the myriad hills of our local golf course was an impossibility, we used to head to The UG and skate one of the only dry spots left. One particularly eventful day (the day we stole a trolley and I was filmed ollieing over it – a magical feat back then), my girlfriend of four months—four months!—broke up with me while I skated at said underground car park. To take my mind off of it, we bought a boomerang and launched it around the car park, trying to knock one another off our boards, and sat around smoking and skating until the last bus home.

At the age of fifteen or sixteen, my friends and I, in coordination with a local youth club, started a movement to build a skatepark at our local rec. We walked around the whole neighbourhood, asking people to write letters to the council supporting our proposals, and sat down and drew out plans for what would have been the best skatepark in the area. Eventually the project began to take shape, and I was invited to speak in the Surrey Heath Council Chamber. At the time (things may have changed) I was the youngest speaker they’d ever had, and received a standing ovation for the two-page speech I delivered on why we deserved to have a skatepark built, what it would mean to us, and why they would be a bunch of old fogies if they refused. They loved me as I stood there in my trilby and my skintight black jeans. What am embarrassing sight I must have been.

The skatepark was built eventually, though not to our blueprints, and to this day it is the worst skatepark I have ever visited. But I can say that I built it, with the help of some youth workers and a few of my friends. Sometimes when I’m there I forget that it wouldn’t be standing if I hadn’t knocked on a hundred houses round where I lived and asked my neighbours to send off letters.

What I do remember, though, is that a few weeks after the park was built, I visited it for a lonesome skate just before the children got out of school (they used to overrun the park come three o’clock and no skating could be done), and listened to Nas’ seminal 1994 album Illmatic the whole way through for the first time. I always listened to music while I skated—I remember, quite embarrassingly, listening to Gym Class Heroes – ‘Cupid’s Chokehold’ and System of a Down – ‘Chop Suey’ basically on repeat while I skated for several years before I received my first iPod. I’d listened to Nas before—my parents used to play ‘If I Ruled The World’ in the car often, from an album entitled Best of Vybin’: New Soul Rebels, a compilation record which contained tracks from such R&B legends as TLC and Horace Brown. (Don’t get me started on ‘One For The Money’.)

Even back then, on my first listen, I remember thinking how out of place ‘Life’s a Bitch’ sounded to me. It remains the only track on the album I don’t like, and I pay no heed to those who say that AZ is one of the most underrated rappers ever. For me, ‘Life’s a Bitch’ is completely incongruous to the style which filters through the rest of Illmatic—its smooth, R&B style can’t be heard anywhere else on this record. It is particularly out of place considering the vibe which the previous track, ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, introduces. ‘Life’s a Bitch’ breaks up what would be an insanely cohesive album in terms of sound, and that has always bothered me. The one thing I will say, though, is that Nas’ dad’s cornet solo towards the end of the track is great.

Illmatic comes into its own after ‘Life’s a Bitch’. I can never decide whether ‘The World is Yours’ or ‘Halftime’ is my favourite track on this record; the hook on the former is one of the most satisfying hooks in all of hip hop, but the beat—and that bass line—on the latter is monstrous. Both have such excellent wordplay and a drastically high quotability factor, making it impossible to decide which bars are better. And most importantly, they’re both excellent songs to skate to. It’s no mistake that so many skate videos are set to hip hop—the constant, pounding beat is excellent to slam tricks to and the BPM is perfect. I’ve discovered countless hip hop tunes from watching skate videos on Instagram.

There are two things I find incredible about this album. The first is how every time I listen to it, it makes me want to go and skate, even though I’ve not stepped on a board for about a year now. The second is how consistently good it is the whole way through (with the exception of aforementioned anomaly). With the likes of Pete Rock and Q-Tip on production, it’s no wonder how good the tracks sound – and when you hold it up against albums like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it’s hard to believe that these two albums were produced around the same time. The quality of the music on this record still stands up today where it doesn’t on other albums—take Big L’s Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous as comparison for an album which sounds nineties. Any one of Nas’ tunes, if they weren’t so famous now, could be played today and nobody would bat an eyelid at how polished they sound. And the production on his follow up, It Was Written, doesn’t stand up to the quality of Illmatic, either.

I’ve still never learned the bars to ‘The World is Yours’ or ‘Halftime’. (This is coming from a man who knows all the words to Big L’s ‘All Black’, all the words to Biggie’s ‘Warning’, all the words to Black Star’s ‘Re: Definition’, all the words to Mos Def’s ‘Miss Fat Booty’, all the words to Joey’s ‘Christ Conscious’, all the words to Das EFX’s ‘Underground Rappa’, etc.) There’s a beauty in not knowing all the words to some of your favourite songs. It helps to retain some of the innocence of them; it feels almost like I’m listening to a song again for the very first time if I can’t tell you what the vocalist is saying. In this case, every time I listen to those two tracks I learn another few words, and eventually, that innocence will be gone. On the other hand, it does mean that I, as a white, middle-class man from Surrey, can spit all the bars to two of Nas’ best tunes and impress/scare people. Either way, whenever I put on Nas – Illmatic, it takes me back to days at The UG; days which, although they may not have been simpler, were full of joy, full of spending time with some of my best friends, and, most importantly for fifteen-year-old me, full of skating.

For reference, here’s me doing a heelflip up the Guildford skatepark Euro Gap (and looking quite disappointed about it afterwards).

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