Eighteen years ago, Nas experienced his second childhood.
Living up to expectations can be the downfall of ambition. For Nas, the legacy of Illmatic has come with its share of bittersweet baggage. Seen by many purists as the archetypical debut album, you’d be hard-pressed to find a critic willing to place another Nas album above it. And while such a take is arguably valid, one should not discredit the frustrations that might arise as a result. After three decades in the game, Nas has given us eleven studio albums. And yet discourse surrounding his music inevitably circles back to his first - a triumphant piece of New York history and one of the greatest first albums of all time. But his first album nevertheless, and the inadvertent benchmark to which all his subsequent albums are measured.
It’s clear that Illmatic both helped and hindered Nas on a variety of levels. Going into its creation, the young Queensbridge emcee was touted as one of the next great voices. Coming out of it, he was damn near heralded as an instant legend. Is it any wonder his follow-up projects seemed to undergo a sloping decline? In hindsight, there’s much to love about his nostalgic run of It Was Written, I Am, and (to a lesser extent) Nastradamus. At the time, however, many felt that Nas’ career was on the decline, his creativity faltering as he scrambled to evolve his sound. When millennium hit, his foothold in the game was steadily slipping. It didn’t help that fellow New York titan Jay-Z, himself experiencing the opposite of Nas’ trajectory, came through with the powerful and disrespectful “Takeover.”
It’s unclear what served as the lightning rod for Nasir Jone’s reassertion of his rightful place. But today, on the day Stillmatic turns eighteen, it’s evident that inspiration struck exactly when it needed to. With Jay’s bully-esque diss positioning Nas as the underdog, fans were left stunned on the arrival of “Ether.” Consider that many had all but written Nas off at that point, the echoes of “Oochie Wally” still lingering. And here he was, taking the Jigga Man’s life and playing it back for him on a slide-by-slide basis. For many, “Ether” has become synonymous with the album, but the fourteen-track project is home to some of Nas’ best work to date. Off the bat, his introduction lays his intentionality on the table; over soulful production evocative of his come-up, Nas warns listeners he’s leaving his past behind, focusing on present-day classics.
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There’s a chip on his shoulder and its used effectively throughout. “Got Ur Self A..." seems to encapsulate his newfound attitude, a mix of vented frustration and confident braggadocio. The spacey “Smokin” explored a new direction, one tailor-made for late-night nefarious cruises. “Rewind” remains some of his best writing on the strength of ambition alone, made all the more effective through its brilliantly rendered execution. “You’re Da Man” finds him once again connecting with Large Professor, who comes through with a lonely instrumental evocative of ancient fables. Lyrically, Nas paints himself as an exhausted wanderer, spitting lines highlighting hypocrites and doubters. “Fame went to they head, so now it's "Fuck Nas,” he ponders. “Yesterday you begged for a deal, today you tough guys?” And that's not even factoring in the project's powerful centerpiece "One Mic," in which Nas plays both calm and storm with equally poignant conviction.
Though much is made of “Ether,” the Cormega-dismantling “Destroy & Rebuild” is equally devastating. Delivered with magnificent condescension, the hip-hop equivalent to the Willy Wonka meme, Nas puts his authorial chops on full display with the most savage children’s story of all time. Spiritual successor to “Life’s A Bitch,” the AZ-assisted “The Flyest” may not boast the infectious charm of its predecessor, but it remains a classic exchange between two longtime gentlemen associates. By the time the closing track rolls around, it’s evident that Nas’ reinvention was successfully executed on all fronts. But most importantly, Stillmatic sparked a creative renaissance, beginning a run that would culminate in the 2006 swan song Hip-Hop Is Dead -- an era that many Nas fans still consider his most fruitful period to this day.It's safe to say the album has become a canonical classic. Some might even make the case for it being Nas' best album yet. On the eve of its eighteenth birthday, where do you stand?