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Life's a Bitch (1994)


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Illmatic is the debut album of American rapper Nas, released April 19, 1994, on Columbia Records. Following his signing to Columbia with the help of MC Serch, recording sessions for the album took place during 1992 to 1993 at Chung King Studios, D&D Recording, Battery Studios, and Unique Recording Studios in New York City. Its production was handled by Nas, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and DJ Premier. Stylistically a hardcore hip hop album, Illmatic features Nas's multi-syllabic internal rhyme patterns expressing inner city lyrical themes and narratives based on his native Queensbridge, New York.

Upon its release, the album debuted at number 12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 59,000 copies in its first week. However, its initial sales fell below expectations and its five singles failed to achieve significant chart success. While it experienced initial low sales, Illmatic received positive reviews from most music critics upon its release and earned praise for its lyrical content, production, and Nas's lyricism. On January 17, 1996, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and in 2001, it earned platinum certification after shipments of one million copies in the United States.

Since its initial reception, the album has been recognized by writers and music critics as a landmark album in East Coast hip hop. It contributed to the regional scene's artistic renaissance in New York, while marking an influential, stylistic change in hip hop at the time. Its influence on subsequent hip hop artists has been attributed to the album's production and Nas's rapping. Several writers have cited Illmatic as one of the quintessential hip hop recordings and one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 400 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.


As a teenager, Nas chose to pursue a career in rapping and enlisted his best friend and neighbor, Queensbridge, Queens-native Willy "Ill Will" Graham, as his DJ. Nas first went by the nickname "Kid Wave" before adopting his more commonly known alias of "Nasty Nas". At fifteen, he met producer Large Professor from Flushing, Queens, and was introduced to Main Source, a hip hop group of which Large Professor was a member. Nas made his recorded debut with them, recording the opening verse on "Live at the Barbeque", from Main Source's 1991 debut album Breaking Atoms, which gained a cult following after its release. Nas subsequently made his solo debut on his 1992 single "Halftime" for the soundtrack to the 1992 film Zebrahead. The single added to the buzz surrounding Nas, earning him comparisons to influential golden age rapper Rakim. Despite the substantial buzz for Nas in the underground scene, he struggled to obtain an offer for a recording contract, and was rejected by major rap labels such as Cold Chillin' and Def Jam Recordings. Nas and DJ "Ill Will" Graham continued to work together, but their partnership was cut short when Graham was murdered by a gunman in Queensbridge on May 23, 1992, while his brother had also been shot, and survived, that night. Nas has cited that moment as a "wake-up call" for him.

In mid 1992, MC Serch, whose group 3rd Bass had dissolved, began working on a solo project and approached Nas. At the suggestion of producer T-Ray, Serch collaborated with Nas for "Back to the Grill", the lead single for Serch's 1992 solo debut album Return of the Product. At the recording session for the song, Serch discovered that Nas did not have a recording contract and subsequently contacted Faith Newman, an A&R executive at Sony Music Entertainment. As Serch recounted, "Nas was in a position where his demo had been sittin' around, 'Live at the Barbeque' was already a classic, and he was just tryin' to find a decent deal ... So when he gave me his demo, I shopped it around. I took it to Russell first, Russell said it sounded like G Rap, he wasn't wit' it. So I took it to Faith. Faith loved it, she said she'd been looking for Nas for a year and a half. They wouldn't let me leave the office without a deal on the table." Once MC Serch assumed the role of executive producer for Nas' debut project, he attempted to connect Nas with various producers. Based on his buzz at the time, numerous New York-based producers were eager to work with him and went to Power House Studios with Nas. Among those producers was DJ Premier, recognized at the time for his raw, aggressive production with jazz-based samples and heavy scratching, and for his work with rapper Guru as a part of hip hop duo Gang Starr. After his production on Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth's Funky Technician and Jeru the Damaja's The Sun Rises in the East , Premier began recording exclusively at D&D Studios in New York City before working with Nas on Illmatic.

Illmatic contains discerning treatment of its subject matter: gang rivalries, desolation, and the ravages of urban poverty. Nas, who was twenty years old when the album was released, realistically depicts the darker side of urbanity, creating highly detailed first-person narratives that deconstruct the troubling lives of inner city teenagers. The symptoms of urban poverty are also addressed throughout the album, as well as nostalgic views of his environment's history, while the album's general lyrical theme alternates from moments of pain and pleasure to frustration and braggadocio. These narratives originate from Nas's own experiences in his hometown of Queensbridge, as the lyrics allude to the housing projects located in the Long Island City-section of Queens, New York. Critic Sam Chennault wrote, "Nas captures post-crack N.Y.C. in all its ruinous glory ... ealizing that drugs were both empowering and destructive, his lyrics alternately embrace and reject the idea of ghetto glamour".

An columnist described Nas as a "genius introvert who rose out of the rubble of Reaganomics to bless the mic with a forward brand of introspective, redemptive street poetry". The columnist also wrote " narrative voice swerves between personas that are cynical and optimistic, naïve and world-weary, enraged and serene, globally conscious and provincial ... a most worthy candidate to craft a palatable and subversive message for the rotten apple's disenfranchised youth. He was young and observant enough to isolate and analyze the positively formative moments of a project childhood while unflinchingly documenting the tragedies". Richard Harrington of The Washington Post described Nas's performance on the album as "balancing limitations and possibilities, distinguishing hurdles and springboards, and acknowledging his own growth from roughneck adolescent to a maturing adult who can respect and criticize the culture of violence that surrounds him. More importantly, he recognizes the older, deeper culture of familial community that is poverty and racism's first casualty".

Along with its powerful narratives of inner-city life and social condition, Illmatic has been noted by music writers for Nas's unique style of delivery and lyrical substance. According to Steve Juon of, Nas "illustrates the Queensbridge trife life of his , while at the same time providing hope that there is something greater than money, guns and drugs." Music critic Marc Lamont Hill of PopMatters elaborated on his lyricism and delivery throughout the album, stating "Nas' complex rhyme patterns, clever word play, and impressive vocab took the art to previously unprecedented heights. Building on the pioneering work of Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim, tracks like 'Halftime' and the laid back 'One Time 4 Your Mind' demonstrated a level of technical precision and rhetorical dexterity." Hill cites "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)" as "an exemplar of flawless lyricism", while critic Steve Juon wrote that the lyrics of the album closer, "It Ain't Hard to Tell", are "just as quotable if not more-so than anything else on the LP - what album could end on a higher note than this?":

I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners

Hennessy holders and old school niggas, then I be dissin a

Unofficial that smoke woolie thai

I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie

Jungle survivor, fuck who's the liver

My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer

Sentence begins indented, with formality

My duration's infinite, money-wise or physiology

Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bop

I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block

I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat

Childhood lesson made me see him drop in my weed smoke

The buddha monk's in your trunk, turn the bass up

Not stories by Aesop, place your loot up, parties I shoot up

Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L

School a fool well, you feel it like braille

It ain't hard to tell, I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill

Vocabulary spills I'm +Ill+

plus +Matic+, I freak beats slam it like Iron Shiek

Jam like a tech with correct techniques

So analyze me, surprise me, but can't magmatize me

Scannin' while you're plannin' ways to sabotage me

I leave em froze like her-on in your nose

Nas'll rock well, it ain't hard to tell

Illmatic also garnered praise for its production. DJ Premier's production on the album has been noted by critics for his minimalist style, which featured simple loops over heavy beats. The majority of the album consists of vintage funk, soul, and jazz samples. According to critics, the album's four major producers (Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip) extensively contributed to the cohesive atmospheric aesthetic that permeated the album, while still retaining each's individual, trademark sound. Q magazine noted that "the musical backdrops are razor sharp; hard beats but with melodic hooks and loops, atmospheric background piano, strings or muted trumpet, and samples ... A potent treat." One music critic wrote that "Illmatic is laced with some of the finest beats this side of In Control Volume 1". With regards to Illmatic's production, music critic Ben Yew wrote "The production, accentuated by infectious organ loop, and synthesizer-like pads in the background, places your mind in a cheerful, reminiscent, mood...A substantial reason for its phenomenal quality...can be attributed to..the most accomplished and consistently excellent music producers."

The intro, "Genesis", begins with an audio sample of the "Subway Theme" by Grand Wizard Theodore from the film Wild Style , the first major hip hop motion picture. Nas made another ode to Wild Style, while shooting the music video for his single, "It Ain't Hard To Tell", on the same stage as the finale scene for the film. Nas's debut, "Live at the Barbeque" is played in the background of "Genesis". The aural montage begins with the sound of an elevated train and an almost-inaudible voice rhyming beneath it. Over these sounds, a snatch of dialogue, two men arguing. According to music writer Mickey Hess, in the intro, "Nas tells us everything he wants us to known about him. The train is shorthand for New York; the barely discernible rap is, in fact, his "Live at the Barbeque" verse; and the dialogue comes from Wild Style, one of the earliest movies to focus on hip hop culture. Each of these is a point of genesis. New York for Nas as a person, 'Live at the Barbeque' for Nas the rapper, and Wild Style, symbolically at least, for hip hop itself. These are my roots, Nas was saying, and he proceeded to demonstrate exactly what those roots had yielded." Setting the general grimy, yet melodic, tone of the album, "N.Y. State of Mind" features a dark, jazzy piano sample by DJ Premier. It opens with high-pitched guitar notes looped from jazz and funk musician Donald Byrd's "Flight Time" , while the prominent groove of piano notes was sampled from the Joe Chambers composition "Mind Rain" . The lyrics of "N.Y. State of Mind" have Nas recounting his participation in gang violence and philosophizing that "Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain", while his rapping spans over forty bars. "N.Y. State of Mind" focuses on a mind state that a person obtains from living in Nas's impoverished environment in New York City. Critic Marc Hill of PopMatters wrote that the song "provides as clear a depiction of ghetto life as a Gordon Parks photograph or a Langston Hughes poem."

In other songs on Illmatic, Nas celebrates life's pleasures and achievements, acknowledging violence as a feature of his socio-economic conditions rather than the focus of his life. "Life's a Bitch" contains a sample of The Gap Band's hit "Yearning for Your Love" , and has guest vocals from East New York-based rapper AZ. It also features Nas's father, legendary jazz player Olu Dara, playing trumpet as the music fades out. A columnist for wrote that Dara's contribution to the song provides a "beautifully wistful end to a track that feels drenched in the dying rays of a crimson sunset over the city." "The World Is Yours" provides a more optimistic narrative from Nas's viewpoint, as he cites political and spiritual leader Gandhi as an influence in its verse, in contrast to the previous Scarface references of "N.Y. State of Mind". While citing "Life's a Bitch" as "possibly the saddest hip-hop song ever recorded", Rhapsody's Sam Chennault wrote that "The World Is Yours" "finds optimism in the darkest urban crevices". "The World Is Yours" was named the seventh greatest rap song by The nostalgic "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)" contains a Reuben Wilson sample managed by DJ Premier, which comprises the sound of a Hammond organ, guitar, vocals and percussion, adding to the ghostly harmonies of "Memory Lane". Spence D. of IGN stated that the song's lyrics evoke "the crossroads of Old School and New School."

"One Love" is composed of a series of letters to incarcerated friends, recounting mutual acquaintances and events that have occurred since the receiver's imprisonment, including unfaithful girlfriends, emotionally-tortured mothers and underdog loyalty. According to one writer, the phrase "one love" represents street loyalty in the song. After delivering "shout-outs to locked down comrades", Nas chastizes a youth who seems destined for prison in the final verse, "Shorty's laugh was cold blooded as he spoke so foul/Only twelve tryin to tell me that he liked my style ... Words of wisdom from Nas, try to rise up above/Keep a eye out for Jake, shorty-wop, one love" Produced by Q-Tip, "One Love" samples the double bass and piano from the Heath Brothers' "Smilin' Billy Suite Part II" and contains a drum break from Parliament's "Come In Out the Rain" , which add to the song's mystical and hypnotic soundscape. The song is followed by the battle rhyme braggadocio of "One Time 4 Your Mind". With a similar vibe as "N.Y. State of Mind", the upbeat "Represent" has a serious tone, as exhibited in the opening lines of the first verse: "Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle/get murdered on the humble, guns will blast and niggaz tumble" While the majority of the album consists of funk, soul and jazz samples, "Represent" contains a sample of "Thief of Baghdad" by organist Lee Erwin from the 1924 film of the same name. Nas discusses his lifestyle in an environment where he "loves committin' sins" and "life ain't shit, but stress, fake niggas and crab stunts", while describing himself as "The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator/The type of nigga who be pissin' in your elevator". "It Ain't Hard to Tell" is a braggadocio rap: "Vocals'll squeeze glocks, MC's eavesdrop/Though they need not to sneak/My poetry's deep, I never fail/Nas's raps should be locked in a cell" It opens with guitars and synths of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" ; the song's vocals are sampled for the intro and chorus sections, creating a swirling mix of horns and tweaked-out voices. Large Professor looped in drum samples from Stanley Clarke's "Slow Dance" and saxophone from Kool & the Gang's "N.T." .

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Standard edition
# Name Artist Live Acoustic Hidden Duration
1-1 Life's a Bitch Nas       03:37
1-2 Life's a Bitch Nas       03:37
1-3 Life's a Bitch Nas       03:37





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Whole or part of the information contained in this card come from the Wikipedia article "Life's a Bitch", licensed under CC-BY-SA full list of contributors here.