We look back at "Illmatic" in light of its 20th Anniversary in our Classic Rotation series.
Yeah, yeah, it's been twenty years and you're old now. Twenty years since those early copies of Illmatic graced those long-lost, seemingly eternally dusty, record store shelves (remember record stores? Yikes - it really has been twenty years) and showed some cats, and later the rest of the world, what Hip Hop was really supposed to sound like. This is the record that fashioned Nas as a permanent resident in the proverbial Rap Hall of Fame and he will never surpass its acclaim.
And that’s not knocking the man, either - Nas is an emcee of an eclectic and nuanced body of work, but Illmatic was the record that changed the game forever and for that it will eclipse him. It will outlive him and endure in the annals of music history for as long as this music stuff still remains important to us as a species. It’s funny, because when you adopt that perspective, twenty years doesn’t really sound like shit.
As legend goes, Nas wrote the tracks to Illmatic holed up in his mom's upper-story apartment in the Queensbridge projects, looking out the window with a pen in hand. It's almost baffling to think that at twenty years old, without a complete high school education, he was granted the ability to encapsulate the lay of the land into his rhymes. The cops, the drug addicts, the graffiti-tinged urban sprawl are all vital elements interfacing with each other in the album. Perhaps nothing says it better than Nas himself if you’re willing to dip back into the old classic, “The World Is Yours.”
The idea was to form a hardcore rap album. One with dense lyricism, complete with complex internal rhymes, and no-frills East Coast production. Despite his young age, Nas had been gathering acclaim already. So much so, that DJ Premier scratched his head and immediately phoned an A&R rep from Sony, after finding out that Nas had not been signed yet. He was already featured on several cuts from MC Serch of the dissolved group 3rd Reach and it was Serch who got Nas linked up with Premier and Large Professor, which would subsequently bring heavyweights like Q-Tip and Pete Rock on board to complete the jazzy, occasionally aggressive, beautiful production for which the record would be known.
The end result? In a way it’s tough to be reigning in this classic rotation entry, because what's left to be said of Illmatic that hasn’t been said before? Illmatic is the sound of subway grates and grifters looking to make a buck. It’s the sound of drive-by shootings and late night bodega runs. It’s a snapshot of a New York City borough before it became a scone and cappuccino factory for the upper middle class. It’s the music made by a young artist yearning for something more to life. Listening to Illmatic again after all these years is like taking a tour bus through Nas’ frame of mind at age twenty. He was a young man who had successfully absorbed and compartmentalized his surroundings in a way that allowed him to glimpse just what it all might mean.
That’s the funny thing about New York; even in the ghetto you're just a few subway stops away from the metropolitan hub of the world. Even when darkness and violence dogs your steps, it’s still relatively easy to remain starry-eyed during a stroll adjacent to the most famous skyline. With this record, Nas not only cemented some of a definitive language used within the Hip Hop vernacular, but he manufactured ten tracks that would be dearly harbored by so many young cats from all walks of life, giving them a soundtrack to dramatize their grind, making life just a little bit easier. In other words, he made a record that spoke to us.
"I always say that my environment wrote that [first] album. I was just an instrument in the middle."- Nas
It's the sort of record that allowed the genre to become what it is today. I don't envy the task of anyone attempting to empirically document the album’s influence as it was so vital in the game so early on. For example, without it, there wouldn't have been Jay-Z, whom despite their beef was greatly influenced by Illmatic's sound, and then without Jay-Z and his generation, we wouldn't have seen the next crop of kiddos spitting bars like they do. There wouldn’t have been a Kanye, Drake, and so on, feel me? It’s simply a testament to the album’s reach.
And that strikes a funny chord, because from a fiscal standpoint, Illmatic wasn't necessarily the biggest smash right away. Hell, it only reached the platinum earmark in 2001, just three years before the record’s tenth anniversary. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to fathom how it has already been twenty years since its inception, because for a lot of us it hasn't been twenty years. Like Sgt. Pepper’s and The Dark Side Of The Moon was for a previous generation, Illmatic is one of those records that you simply just discover at some point in your musical listening career. It’s inevitable.
Which might seem initially odd, because the record is hardly pop-friendly - Nas' instincts are too gritty, too real for that (or, at the very least, they were, but Nas has actually been pretty consistent throughout his career even if he never unveiled another game changer of this magnitude). Just look what he does on the song “One Love.”
Q-Tip, the song's original producer, originally envisioned the track sporting bars about Nas' summer vacation. Instead, Nas flipped the concept on its head and made the track about his friends in prison.
“What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid
When the cops came you should have slid to my crib
Fuck it, black, no time for looking back it's done
Plus congratulations, you know you got a son
I heard he looks like ya, why don't your lady write ya?
Told her she should visit, that's when she got hyper
Flipping, talking 'bout he acts too rough
He didn't listen he be riffing while I'm telling him stuff”
Look at how much story Nas is able to convey in just these few bars in “One Love.” It’s staggering just how effortless he seems. It almost seems as though the rhymes were incidental, as Nas’ impulses with language are so spot on, so deliberate and seemingly off the cuff at the same time. On top of just the technical feat, Nas was penned a heart wrenchingly familiar story of the trials schlupping it through a prison bid all the while framing it within a letter sent to his friend, in this case, Lakey Da Kid.
“'I don't know how to start this shit,' 'cause he had just written it. He's got the beat running in the studio, but he doesn’t know how he's going to format how he's going to convey it. So he's going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ and I’m counting him in [to begin his verse]. One, two, three. And then you can hear him go, ‘Yo,’ and then he goes right into it." DJ Premier recalled while detailing how Nas recorded the first verse of “NY State Of Mind” in one take. "He didn’t know how he was gonna come in, but he just started going because we were recording. I’m actually yelling, ‘We’re recording!’ and banging on the [vocal booth] window. ‘Come on, get ready!’ You hear him start the shit: Rappers…. And then everyone in the studio was like, ‘Oh, my God’, ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that was when he was up and coming, his first album. So we was like, 'Yo, this guy is gonna be big.'"
That's important to keep in mind as the revisionists will lazily remain blasé about how important Nas' talents behind the mic were to this record, as they will with any record that has seen such consistent praise. Just look at the elegance and tenacity of language he accomplishes in these bars.
“I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death
Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined
I think of crime when I'm in a New York state of mind”
Ten tracks. Every one of them a classic, there was no dead weight. It was one of those rare records that remains perfect through each play through, for many of us at the very least, and it made the notion that Hip Hop could be poetry seem like a sane notion. An album that received widespread acceptance, even when most of the mainstream media treated rap like garbage. Everyone has an opinion on Illmatic and everyone has heard much of the album in its entirety, even if they never had the record themselves, but that’s okay because the album was not made for them. It was made for us, for the fans, for the folks who would listen to the words under a fine toothcomb to make the album reveal its secrets.
In light of the anniversary, I want you to do yourself a favor. Go grab a pair of headphones and walk to your favorite spot in town. Don't bring your boys, just chill, relax, and listen to the album in full, from back to front in order. Do it because you deserve it and because, as this is another Illmatic retrospective, I’m afraid I have to end this with a nod and a corny quote - the one I’m favoring being, “the world is yours.”
Alright, alright. But fill us in, what does Illmatic mean to you?