Ranking each song on Illmatic is not an easy task, believe me. I mean, how can you choose between “N.Y. State of Mind” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” or “Halftime” and “The World Is Yours”?

Released in 1994 at the pinnacle of hip hop’s golden age, Illmatic is one of the many defining moments of the culture’s history. From the opening track, “The Genesis,” to the closing track, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” each song on “Illmatic” has its own story, flow, and beat that brings something special to the album.

Nas’ lyrics are intricate, introspective, and full of vivid imagery that paint a picture of his experiences growing up in Queensbridge, New York City. The beats on the album, produced by heavyweights like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor, perfectly complement Nas’ lyrics, creating a soundscape that takes the listener on a journey through the streets of New York City.

Not only that, the sequencing of the album is literally perfect. The songs are arranged in a way that creates a narrative that’s almost cinematic in its presentation. It’s almost like each song is a scene in a movie, and when you listen to the album in its entirety, you feel like you’re experiencing the story that the Queensbridge legend is telling.

All of these factors make ranking the songs on Illmatic an incredibly challenging task. Each song is a unique piece of the puzzle that contributes to the album’s overall impact. And when you take all of these pieces together, you get a timeless masterpiece that continues to inspire and influence new generations of hip hop artists.

From “N.Y. State of Mind” to “Life’s a Bitch”, “Represent” to “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, we rank every song from Illmatic, from worst to best.

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9. “One Time 4 Your Mind”

Producer: Large Professor

Sometimes I hate making lists because there always has to be a song, album or artist that appears last on the list. Maybe I should have thought about that before creating a website focused entirely on publishing rap lists. Anyway, back to Illmatic. “One Time 4 Your Mind” isn’t the last ranked song because it’s bad in any way. Quite the contrary.

Large Professor laces the production with some of the funkiest bounce that Nas has ever rhymed on, and the Queensbridge teenager rocks a nonchalant flow that we’ve rarely heard from him. It’s a dope track, but compared to the rest of the album, it’s just cool, nothing transcendent.

8. “Represent”

Producer: DJ Premier

“Represent” comes right after the slower-paced “One Time 4 Your Mind,” and Nas switches up his flow to match the change in energy. With his crew from Queensbridge backing him up in the studio, Nas gets hyped up and delivers one of the most memorable verses on the album.

Side note: the album version of “Represent” is actually a remix of the original jazzier version. In a 2019 interview, DJ Premier revealed that the first version of the song was created before “One Love” and “Life’s a Bitch,” but he later decided to update it to match the overall sound of the album.

7. “Life’s a Bitch” ft. AZ

Producer: L.E.S.

Take a moment to appreciate the opening verse by AZ on this track and you’ll quickly understand why it’s revered so much as one of the greatest guest verses of all time. While Nas’ lyrical prowess is certainly on display, it’s AZ’s feature that really elevates “Life’s a Bitch” to classic status. His delivery is seemingly effortless, with a flow that leaves you wondering if he ever needs to catch his breath.

6. “Halftime”

Featuring: AZ

Producer: Large Professor

The most banging track off the whole album, Large Professor actually created the beat for “Halftime” with Busta Rhymes in mind, but the “Woo-Hah” rapper turned it down. With Extra P’s thumping production backing him up, Nas seizes the mic and delivers a performance that is simply relentless. Featured on the Zebrahead soundtrack which came out in 1992, it’s no surprise that “Halftime” helped to build up hype for Illmatic before its release almost two years later.

5. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)”

Producer: DJ Premier

Narrowing down Nas’ best written songs is like choosing your favorite child – it’s no easy task. However, “Memory Lane” is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces he has ever penned. In the song, the Queensbridge legend reflects on his life experiences and how they forced him to mature at a young age. The old soul lyrics are poignant, but when paired with Preemo’s reflective production, they take on a life of their own. It’s a bittersweet track that hooks you in and leaves you wanting more.

4. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”

Producer: Large Professor

With its sublime production – which features a prominent sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” – and Nas’ energetic rapping, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” is widely considered one of the Queensbridge rapper’s finest works ever. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” has stood the test of time three decades later, and remains a boom bap essential that closes off Illmatic on an incredible high.

3. “One Love”

Producer: Q-Tip

Listening to “One Love” is like being transported to a jazz bar. The smooth, exotic production, courtesy of Q-Tip, sets the mood perfectly, and Nas’ slick verses only add to the ambiance. Once again, he shows off his storytelling skills, rapping in the form of letters he’s sent to his friends. And just when you think the song couldn’t get any better, Nas drops a bombshell of a third verse which might be one of the finest ever in hip hop history. “One Love” is rap storytelling at its best and a true testament to Nas’ divine penmanship.

2. “The World Is Yours”

Producer: Pete Rock

Jay-Z had no idea what he was talking about when he said “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song,” “The World Is Yours” might have the best hook in Nas’ entire catalogue, and it’s an absolute classic. The back and forth between Nas and Pete Rock is so addictive that you’ll have it stuck in your head for days. The summery piano beat, which features a sample of Ahmad Jamal’s “I Love Music”, combined with Nas’ precise flow makes for a jam-packed listening experience that’s hard to forget. Every bar is memorable, and the hunger in Nas’ voice only adds to the intensity.

1. “N.Y. State of Mind”

Producer: DJ Premier

When you think of Illmatic, you think of “N.Y. State of Mind.” When you think of Nas and DJ Premier collaborating, you think of “N.Y. State of Mind.” When you think about New York hip hop, you think of “N.Y. State of Mind.” In many ways, this is the quintessential ’90s New York rap song. The gritty Preemo production is pure fire, and one of his best, but it’s Nas’ vivid storytelling that really draws you in, like watching a movie come to life. Every lyric hits hard, and his voice has a fire in it that’s unparalleled. It’s no wonder that the Queens rapper set the bar so high with “N.Y. State of Mind” – flawless beats, mind-blowing lyrics, and a penchant for detailed imagery that’s impossible to ignore.

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