Illmatic: Ten Years Later
The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator
The type of nigga who be pissin’ in your elevator
When Columbia Records first released Illmatic on 19 April 1994, few if any expected that it would have such a profound impact on hip-hop culture. Although Nas impressed the hip-hop world with his verse on Main Source’s 1991 posse cut “Live at the Barbeque”, (“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”) and created a buzz with the early release of “Halftime”, there was no indication that he was poised to create the most celebrated album in hip-hop history. It is only ten years later, appropriately marked by the release of Illmatic Anniversary Edition, that we can fully appreciate the importance of Nas’s seminal project.
In a year filled with spectacular solo debut albums like Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East, Method Man’s Tical, and Notorious B.I.G.‘s classic Ready to Die, Illmatic reigned supreme. Garnering unanimous critical acclaim, including The Source magazine’s then-coveted five mics, Nas was immediately pushed to the front of a pack of new school MCs vying for the lyrical crown vacated by (not taken from) Rakim. Ten years after its release, Illmatic stands not only as the best hip-hop album ever made, but also one of the greatest artistic productions of the twentieth century.
The brilliance of Illmatic is its simplicity. Ten tracks. No interludes. No trendy beats. Nas wisely stayed away from the faddish sounds of the day, relying instead on the timeless production of Large Professor, Pete Rock, Premier, and Q-Tip. The result was a profound sonic articulation of old school desire and new school lyrical ingenuity that raised the creative stakes for the next generation of MCs, including Common, Jay-Z, and Notorious B.I.G. In spite of his chronological immaturity—Nas was 20 years old when he recorded Illmatic—Nas’s commanding voice and ability to paint critical but dignified portraits of the urban proletariat reflected an artistic and moral vision far beyond his years.
Before critical race theory gained prominence for its focus on counter-narratives, Illmatic‘s stories challenged dominant conceptions of ghetto life. On “Life’s A Bitch”, which features his father Olu Dara on trumpet, Nas complicates the notion of “walking nihilism” that Cornel West expresses (and overstates) in Race Matters. But it is AZ, who has the only guest rap appearance on the album, who steals the show with one the greatest guest verses in hip-hop history:
Visualizin’ the realism of life and actuality
Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary
And my mentality is, money orientated
I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it
Cause yeah, we were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters
But somethin’ must of got in us ‘cause all of us turned to sinners
Now some, restin’ in peace and some are sittin’ in San Quentin
Others such as myself are tryin’ to carry on tradition
On the Q-Tip-produced “One Love”, Nas adds texture and complexity to the lives of prison industrial complex victims through his passionate letters to fallen homies. “New York State of Mind”, one of the album’s standout tracks, provides as clear a depiction of ghetto life as a Gordon Park photograph or a Langston Hughes poem.
In addition to its powerful narratives, Illmatic was a lyrical masterpiece. Nas’s complex rhyme patterns, clever wordplay, 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 that are now requisite for inclusion among hip-hop’s elite. The ultra-poetic “Memory Lane”, produced by Premier, is an exemplar of flawless lyricism:
I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners
Henessey holders and old school niggas, then I be dissin a
Unofficial that mold 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 anciently manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Chocolate blessing make me see him drop in my weed smoke
While the critical success of Illmatic has helped Nas’s career immeasurably, it has also been his greatest enemy. Subsequent albums have all been unfairly weighed against Illmatic. Commercial fans have never completely accepted Nas’s reluctance to court them with radio-friendly fluff and club bangers. The underground has since disowned Nas for losing his organic connection to the streets during his Escobar and Nastrodamus phases. Although he vehemently denies it, Nas has spent an entire career trying to recapture the glory from his first project. This is evidenced by the lackluster bonus disc that accompanies the Illmatic Anniversary Edition. Remixes of “Life’s a Bitch”, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, “One Love”, and “The World Is Yours” simply fail to capture the magic of the originals. While new tracks “On the Real” and “Star Wars” provide pleasurable listening, they also serve to remind us that no one, not even Nas himself, can duplicate the brilliance of the greatest album of all time.