April 2014 marks the 20th Anniversary debut of Nas’ Illmatic which was released April 19th 1994. At that time, the 20 year old Queens Bridge rapper stepped into the game and established himself as one of the greatest MC’s of all time. Inspired by Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Kool G Rap, some could say Nas’ skills were a throwback to the 80’s but with beefed up lyrical dexterity.
Illmatic pulled you into the gritty urban world of inner city New York. Although not as popular as other albums or artists at that time like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious BIG, Nas’s Illmatic was lyrically superior to anything else at the time. On Illmatic, Nas was able to paint a picture and visually take you to the projects and live out the good, bad and ugly through his lyrics. Nas’ rhymes were not heavily laced by materialism like many other rappers. His tales were more of teenagers and street kats seeking misguided hood fame. Unlike most hip hop back then (and currently) Nas didn’t come off as glorifying violence. Many of his tales are filled with struggle, poverty, incarceration and hardship. Check out the opening verse on the Q-Tip produced track One Love;
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
I was like yeah, shorty don’t care, she a snake too
Fucking with them niggas from that fake crew that hate you
But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?
Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach
It’s bugged, plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hanging out with young thugs that all carry nines
And night time is more trife than ever
What up with Cormega, did you see him, are y’all together?
If so then hold the fort down, represent to the fullest
Say what’s up to Herb, Ice and Bullet
I left a half a hundred in your commissary
You was my nigga when push came to shove, one what? (One love)
His stories featured real life consequences and cautionary words to real life actions. Again something this is rare in rap and hip hop even to this day. Not only could you nod-your-head to the beats of Illmatic’s masculine bravado, Nas would also make you stop, listen and think. His writing abilities and lyricism is pure poetry. Sample a verse to the first single off Illmatic, It Ain’t Hard to Tell;
The buddha monk’s in your trunk, turn the bass up
Not stories by Aesop, place your loot up, parties I shoot up
Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L
School a fool well, you feel it like braille
It ain’t hard to tell, I kick a skill like Shaquille holds a pill
Vocabulary spills I’m Ill
plus Matic, I freak beats slam it like Iron Sheik
Jam like a tech with correct techniques
So analyze me, surprise me, but can’t magmatize me
Scannin’ while you’re plannin’ ways to sabotage me
I leave em froze like her-on in your nose
Nas’ll rock well, it ain’t hard to tell
The Source magazine bestowed Illmatic with its highest honor, the coveted FIVE MICS. The review stated “I must maintain this is one of the best hip-hop albums I have ever heard. Lyrically, the whole shit is on point. No clichéd metaphors, no gimmicks. Never too abstract, never superficial”.
Since its release the album has since achieved legendary status. It has influenced academic courses, lecturers and literary works all dedicated to its dissection and understanding. Rappers and entertainers from Talib Kweli, Common, Just Blaze, Alicia Keys, Clipse, The Game, Kendrick Lamar, and one time nemesis Jay Z, have all be influenced by Illmatic. With Illmatic’s perfectly produced 10 tracks, Nas set the standard and forced Hip hop to evolve. Here’s to another 20 years.
Check out some of our favorite cuts and performances from Illmatic
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