Nas' 'Illmatic' turns 20

Def Jam

By Josh Frazier, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 13, 2014

“Straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap,” boasts 20-year-old Nasir Jones on the introduction to “NY State of Mind,” the first full song on his legendary debut album. This week celebrates the twentieth anniversary of those famous words, as Illmatic, the greatest rap album ever made, turns two decades old. Its legacy is still felt today.

Nas, now a hip-hop legend, has had a complicated career full of missteps, but there is no denying the impact of his debut album. Illmatic introduced hip-hop to a charismatic young New York rapper who would soon become a worldwide star on the strength of one album. Nas’ detailed lyrics about the grittiness of street life sound as authentic today as they did in 1994. Listeners across the country were instantly transported to the Queensbridge housing projects, experiencing the fear, pride and triumph of a Black kid trying to make it in Queens, New York.

Illmatic is only ten songs long and each one is an unimpeachable classic. Nas has a way of bringing small moments of real-life into his raps through his deeply personal rhymes. His childhood love of the Jackson 5, for instance, makes his escapades of gangbanging and shootouts feel like they actually happened. Nas is more than a caricature.

The first full song, “NY State of Mind,” introduces the listener to life on the block. Tales of crackheads, dreams of a better life and a shootout in a building filled with innocent children are intensely honest meditations, making Nas relatable even to those who have never held a gun or lived in squalor. The following track is filled with bleak nihilism, reminding us all that “life’s a bitch, and then you die.” This shocking statement sees a 20-year-old already world-weary from the violence he has seen, ready to drown his pain in a bottle or with a blunt. Throughout the album, there are shout outs to Ill Will, Nas’ best friend who was shot and killed. Illmatic is filled with reminders of our mortality, although at times Nas appears to possess superhuman talent.

“The World Is Yours” opens with some of the most powerful lyrics ever recorded. “I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi til I’m charged / Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin.” This mind-bending lyricism shows the multi-faceted nature of Nas; even at age 20, he is both a kid from the gutter and a gifted intellectual. This dual nature, coupled with his honest delivery and his poise behind the microphone made Nas an emcee unlike any other. Released at the height of the G-Funk era, Illmatic was a polar opposite of glossy West Coast rap. The New York streets Nas lived on were dirty, filled with garbage, baseheads and dice games. The crime-centric narratives of Illmatic are a far cry from the mafioso raps that were popular with mainstream audiences at the time, yet the lyrics resonate deeper than any pop-rap record.

“I rap for listeners, bluntheads, fly ladies and prisoners,” Nas states on “Memory Lane,” showing the diversity of his audience. Nas made an album that anyone can appreciate; it is intricately lyrical, sincerely personal and a profound commentary on the harsh realities of street life. Illmatic’s appeal is universal. Upon its release, the album was critically acclaimed, earning a rare five mic rating from The Source, one of hip-hop’s premier magazines. This honor has only ever been bestowed upon 15 albums, yet Nas holds two of the top spots.

When Illmatic was released, Nas was still living in the same Queensbridge housing projects that are memorialized in his lyrics. Today, Nas is undeniably a rap legend. He has six chart-topping albums, tied with Eminem and Kanye West. His work ethic is tireless; he dropped his eleventh studio album, the excellent Life Is Good in 2012. Nas’ talent is still evident to this day, but he has never topped the caliber of his debut album, nor has any other rapper. Illmatic is simply the most perfect hip-hop album to ever be recorded.

The flawless tapestry of street life weaves together gripping narratives with eloquent lyricism, detailing Nas’ unrelenting pursuit of success. Of course, Illmatic also serves as a constant reminder of how quickly life can end. “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death,” raps Nas on “NY State of Mind.” Illmatic is a snapshot of life in the Queensbridge projects preserved throughout time, and its honesty and remarkable storytelling make its greatness unequaled.