20 Years Later, It’s Still Illmatic: Reflecting on Nas’ milestone debut

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Photo by Danny Clinch

Twenty years ago, rap icon Nas debuted with his critically acclaimed album Illmatic. Since its release, this album has been considered a classic not just by hip hop heads, but by music lovers of all genres. There’s something about the street poetry from the Queensbridge MC that still still captures not only listeners’ ears, but also their minds.

But how do we celebrate 20 years of a milestone album? A couple ways, beginning with the new documentary Time is Illmatic, which takes us into the thought process of the young Nasir Jones when he made his first album, including interviews with Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys and Pharrell. The tour in support of the documentary – which includes Nas performing the album in its entirety – comes to The Keswick Theater this weekend.

Another question we must think about is what made Illmatic so great? Why is it that this album is still being praised 20 years later?

The album was widely acclaimed upon its release in April of 1994. At the time, The Source wrote “The bottom line is this: even if the album doesn’t speak to you on that personal level, the music itself is still worth the money. If you can’t appreciate the value of Nas’ poetical realism then get yourself out of hip hop.”

Coming out in the wake of Wu Tang Clan’s immortal debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Rolling Stone reflected at the time that “The Wu crew opened a door for Nas,” using New York-style beats and rhymes as a refreshing alternative to the simmering G-Funk from the west coast that was popular at the time.

RS scribe Toure praised the sound as much as the honesty of Nas writing from his first-person experience: “Illmatic will probably be Broadway’s album of the year, not for the real life behind its dedication to 13 dead homies but for the work on the CD. If an MC’s history were really more important than his skills, then anyone from the projects would be able to rhyme like Nas, and Nas would be no different from any bum riding down Broadway.”

The album continues to resonate with listenrs. Brandon Evans, a fan from West Chester, calls it “a soundtrack to much of my own experience” while Temple student Leroy Mapp explained “It was a monumental art piece for rap music and illustrated street tales in a poetic way that everyone could understand, even if you are not from or don’t have a connection to poor urban life. For me personally, Illmatic made a young poor black boy that grew up without hope believe that the world was mine.”

Represent

“Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle
Get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast, niggaz tumble
The corners is the hot spot, full of mad criminals
who don’t care, guzzlin beers, we all stare
at the out-of-towners”

If you listen closely to Illmatic from the beginning of “The Genesis” all the way to the ending of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” you’ll discover that the album follows a kid from a poor neighborhood who not only had an amazing talent, but at the same time was very conscious. That’s to say he was aware of his own existence, thoughts, and surroundings. When Nas created Illmatic he gave voice to hundreds of thousands of young black males who grew up in cities that were infested with crime and poverty. His poetry painted a picture of the how crime affected them, whether or not they actually participated in illegal activities or not.

What made this album even more special is that you didn’t have to grow up where Nas did in order to relate. You definitely get the feeling that you’re walking around New York City, thanks to producers DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S.,  and Large Professor. However, you could’ve been from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Newark, or any other urban city in America and still be able to identify with songs such as “Represent” or “Life’s A Bitch.” Illmatic was able to articulate what many young Americans felt and were thinking but didn’t know how to say.

Life’s A Bitch

“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”

“I switched my motto — instead of sayin fuck tomorrow
That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto”

With that in mind, Illmatic was also able to give those who weren’t from poor urban neighborhoods a better understanding of what life was like for those who were. Illmatic was not the first hip hop album to talk about this by any stretch.  Just a few other examples were NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Tupac Shakur’s 2Pacalypse Now, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle.

The difference between these classic albums and Illmatic was that Nas did a better job at articulating street life than all of his peers combined. This by no means discredits their impact and legacy: they all have something Illmatic doesn’t have much of, and that is shock value. If you weren’t from the ghetto, you couldn’t believe what these young black males were saying and how they were saying it. That’s probably the reason why all of these albums were able to go gold and platinum faster than Illmatic. These rappers were offspring of aggressive rappers like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and KRS-One, while Nas was an offspring of Rakim. The way he rapped throughout this entire album was cool, calm, and collected like Rakim did in the late 80’s and early 90’s. (Some would say that Nas actually surpassed the legendary MC, but that’s for another discussion.)

What made Illmatic so significant was that, because there was so little shock value, you were more able to fully absorb the meaning of his lyrics. Listening to this album was like listening to a lecture from a sociology professor who thoroughly explained that crime is a symptom of poverty. For instance, “Life’s A Bitch” shows that young African American males who are poor know that they live in a country that says that their value in life is based on their income. It also showed that this struggle is what fuels them into getting money by any means necessary.  This creative street professor illustrated how most urban cities are infested with so much poverty that a many young African American males are willing to resort to crime in order to quickly escape.

This idea also explained why on songs like  “NY State of Mind,” and “One Time 4 Ya Mind,”  you would hear Nas envisioning himself as gangster or find himself rooting for the villain while he’s watching a movie. He showed that many black males related to the bad guys because their stories were similar to their own lives. Sadly, these fictional characters, legendary criminals, or even thugs in their own neighborhood were role models to these young black male adolescences because they could relate to them. This poet educator from the streets broke down why no one from an impoverished city has time to think about their future when their present doesn’t look so good.

Illmatic stood through the test of time because it eloquently told the view point of young African American males and at that same time gave us some of the illest hip hop lyrics that we’ve ever heard. Hip hop fans aren’t just located in the urban cities, they’re everywhere, so most of fans also love Nas’ wordplay and thought provoking rhymes in songs like “Halftime,” “Memory Lane,” “The World Is Mine,” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” It’s a record that breaks down the boundaries of city neighborhoods, of race and of economic status to paint an honest and enduring picture, and it is very much worth celebrating this weekend at The Keswick Theater.

Nas performs at the Keswick Theater on Sunday, October 5th, and Monday, October 6th; tickets and information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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