On April 19th, 1994 Nas changed Hip Hop forever. With the release of Illmatic Nas transformed Hip Hop from a musical genre to an art form. The effortless complexity and flow of the lyrics was previously unheard of, the production was flawless and the sound is timeless.
Illmatic was and still is the quintessential New York sound. Nas painted a picture of what life was like in the projects, pulling no punches with brutal imagery.
And claim some corners, crew without guns are goners/In broad daylight, stickup kid they run up on us
From N.Y State of Mind to It Ain’t Hard to Tell, Nas takes the listener on a vivid, almost cinematic journey through the ravages of urban poverty growing up in the Queensbridge projects. From the man himself ‘I gave you what the streets felt like, sounded like and tasted like all in that album and I tried to capture it like no one else could’. Illmatic became the soundtrack of New York, Nas captured the life and soul of New York, whilst also giving a graphic yet insightful representation of the world he and those around him grew up in. Nas gave those in similar circumstances to himself something to relate to and gave others a musical depiction of the struggles he and so many others encountered within inner city New York. If one album has ever captured a city, it’s Illmatic and New York.
Verbal assassin, my architect pleases/When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus
Nas introduced himself to the world of Hip Hop with his legendary first verse on Main Source’s-Live at the Barbeque. The lyricism of his verse was the first taste of just what he could do on a mic. For the first time he exhibited his unheralded vocabulary, wordplay and rhyme scheme. Clearly drawing influence from the distinguished Rakim, Nas took Hip Hop lyricism to the next level. Nas’s biggest influence on Hip Hop was perhaps the innovative and complex rhyme schemes he utilized on Illmatic. Similar to Rakim he used internal rhyming, assonance and truncated sentences to forever elevate Hip Hop beyond a simple ABAB rhyme scheme. While Rakim was the first to do it, it became a classic case of the apprentice becoming the master.
So stay civilized, time flies/Though incarcerated your mind dies, I hate it when your mom cries/It kinda makes me want to murder, for real a/I even got a mask and gloves to bust slugs but one love
Many of the lyrics worked on so many levels that it’s simply mind-boggling. Nas drops ‘I drink Moet with Medusa/Give her shotguns in hell/From the spliff that I lift and inhale’ on It Ain’t Hard To Tell. To ‘shotgun’ is to inhale marijuana from any smoking device. Medusa is a figure in Greek mythology who is said to have a gaze that’ll turn men to stone. Nas is insinuating that he is so supreme that rather than being turned to stone, he’ll get Medusa ‘stoned’ through shotguns. It’s this sort of expressive genius that makes it evident Nas can do more than just rhyme. He’s not only a naturally talented MC, but also tremendously intelligent and can translate ‘book smarts’ into his rhymes. It is said that as a kid Nas used to read the dictionary, listen to Illmatic next to the other music of the time and you’ll probably believe it. The album is lyrically breathtaking, the pure virtuoso displayed by Nas is enough to blow anyone away. Even more than 20 years later, you’ll struggle to find an album of any genre that can compete with Illmatic lyrically. Many debut albums can rely on big name features to gain on attention, Nas however backed himself. He was the one with a story to tell and he was the one who would tell it. However you can’t review Illmatic without drawing attention to the only feature, AZ’s legendary verse on ‘Life’s a Bitch’. He absolutely murders the track and was more than deserving to be the only feature on such an influential album. If not for Illmatic and Nas’s lyrical innovation there’s no guarantee that we’d hear the plethora of lyrical innovation and poetic craftsmanship that is ever present in modern Hip Hop.
You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/That’s like Malcolm X, catching the Jungle Fever.
Nas’s obvious lyrical prowess ensured he had a legendary set of producers ready to help him make one of Hip Hop’s greatest ever albums. Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip were the headline names of an extraordinary production line up. Illmatic was made at a time when it was custom for a Hip Hop album to be made with one producer/production team. Nas wanted Large Professor to executive produce the album but didn’t get his own way. However Nas’s talent was so clear that he attracted some of the best East Coast producers of the time, quite the achievement for a debut project. This set a trend of using multiple producers for albums, a very divisive issue. Funnily enough many feel that despite beginning the trend, Illmatic is the exception rather the rule. It is thought that the use of multiple producers takes away from the cohesiveness of an album, however Illmatic certainly had no such trouble. The debate of using multiple producers is one for another day, and whether for the better or worse, it was Illmatic that began the trend.
The influence of Illmatic is immeasurable. The album has certainly stood the test of time, 20 years on and it hasn’t aged a bit. Nas started out simply as a boy with a story to tell. When recording verses he never could have imagined the magnitude of what he was creating. He was a 20-year-old kid from Queens and put out what is widely considered the greatest Hip Hop album of all time. He wasn’t in it for the riches. He just wanted his story to be heard; and it was.