Within a rough timespan of a year, beginning mid-1993 and ending mid-1994, hip-hop presented some of the greatest and most influential albums within the genre. Wu-Tang Clan had “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” A Tribe Called Quest had “Midnight Marauders” and the legendary Notorious B.I.G. debuted with “Ready to Die.” Amongst these and other landmark releases, a dream influx of music for hip-hop heads, shined an album from a young Queens native, Nasir Jones, or Nas, titled “Illmatic.”
The album is celebrating its 20-year anniversary with the re-release “Illmatic XX,” featuring original material with some remixes and extras, and a tour by Nas wherein he’ll perform the album in its entirety — but back in 1994, Nas’ album wasn’t as applauded as it is now. The anticipated debut of this young MC, although critically acclaimed, had a puzzling reception as it didn’t have the sales to match its content, failing to reach Gold status in sales until two years after its release — yet it earned the coveted five mics from “The Source” (and controversially, at that). Since then, the popularity and praise received by “Illmatic” has grown to proportions that at times overshadow its creator. But with its powerful vocabulary and graphic sound, “Illmatic” holds weight as a testament to young Nas’ New York hip-hop.
In the working stages of its birth, “Illmatic” had a last supper ensemble of hip-hop legends behind it that encapsulated the sound of New York City. MC Serch executive produced, while Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and DJ Premier handled most of the production that put 1994 New York City — in Nas’ specific case, Queensbridge — in a time capsule. After the album’s intro, the first song, Premier-produced “N.Y. State of Mind,” presents us a braggadocious New York City slum filled with ambition, riches and violence like none other. This is all realized through a light continuous horn and simple low-key piano notes, interjected by themes of violence and riches.
Then there’s the Large Professor-produced “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” with any-time-of-day horns, sultry enough for a warm porch-chillin’ type of day and cold enough for a nighttime cop encounter. The bassline growls throughout, while impassioned instrumental chorus breaks are highlighted by the spirited male and female vocals that now define a hip-hop standard. At a time where the relaxed West Coast style dominated the hip-hop sound, the production on “Illmatic” defined the New York City sound by paying homage to Nas’ home and bringing the best of a rough sampling sound on wax. In an ever-evolving musical landscape, “Illmatic” has a timeless sound because it’s rooted in its honest 1994 New York reality that can always be revisited without difficulty.
Lyrically, a 19-year-old Nas painted a verbal picture of New York life through his young eyes and wise mind. As easy as it could have been to create content centered solely on the pleasure and glorification of a street lifestyle, Nas observes the situation through a gray area, identifying the negatives within a lifestyle that he’s purposely participating in. On “Life’s a Bitch” (which features AZ dropping one of the best verses, ever), Nas and AZ face their mortality and lifestyle pleasures. “I switched my motto; instead of saying ‘fuck tomorrow’ / That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.” In another instance, Nas says, “Speak with criminal slang, begin like a violin / End like Leviathan,” echoing the consequences of his lifestyle while asserting MC prowess.
Even though he does deter the criminal lifestyle while also genuinely partaking in it, Nas doesn’t position himself as morally superior, but rather openly displays the lifestyle for what it is. Nas will just as easily say, “I drink a little vodka, spark a L and hold a Glock” unabashedly, and what more could be asked of an MC than overall authenticity? There’s no better example than my personal favorite, “The World is Yours,” where Nas is uplifting, critical of religion, his past wrongdoings and future improvements. “While all the old folks pray to Jesus, soakin’ their sins in trays / Of holy water, odds against Nas are slaughter / Thinking a word best describing my life to name my daughter / My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection / Born in correction, all the wrong shit I did, he’ll lead a right direction.”
Twenty years in, “Illmatic” seems to be lauded more and more with time’s passage. The album now consistently appears atop “best of” lists by golden-age purists and general fans. Many would even argue that it’s a perfect album, and that it’s the measuring stick that every hip-hop album should measure itself against — but its unique soul and grit simply cannot be duplicated. That’s not because it’s unfathomable for something to be as good, but because Nas illustrates a city, a style and a mind perfectly faithful to itself: Nasir Jones living in Queens, N.Y. in 1994.
Rating: 5 stars