After repeated listens, it’s clear how ingrained the theme of tribute is throughout: the talk of park jams, the samples of past emcees, the bit in “Represent” that begins, “Before the BDP conflict with MC Shan / around the time that Shanté dissed the Real Roxanne,” as though time unfolds according to a New York hip-hop calendar. But, wait—wasn’t this some gangster-reportage rap, all crack vials and artillery? It was, and it was partly that content that made the eighties love unobvious. The beats were of their moment, while Nas’s rhymes, even as they drew from un-shouting veterans like Kool G. Rap and Rakim, meant a whole new level of writtenness for the genre.
I still don’t know that I’ve ever heard another hip hop album that sounds like ‘Illmatic’. ‘Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City’ maybe comes the closest. And a totally undermentioned aspect of what makes ‘Illmatic’ great? The length—or lack of it. 10 tracks, 9 songs. No room for weak tracks or throwaway skits. And really, at the end of the day, how many hip hop albums have a 13,500 word Wikipedia article?