Nas’s debut album, ‘Illmatic’, was released 20 years ago this month. Despite the record’s running time clocking in at just under 40 minutes, its impact cannot be overstated. Not only have Nas’s syllable juggling rhyme schemes influenced generations of rappers, and the minimal, loop-based MPC productions spawned an uncountable number of pastiches, but also the record’s legacy is so strong that it has been the subject of an academic work: Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic.
Even though Nas was only 21 when the record was released, one of the record’s defining features was the then young man’s dark, evocative and technically flawless lyricism, which seemed far beyond his years. Nas was raised in Brooklyn’s Queensbridge housing projects – a fertile breeding ground for rappers that also gave the world Mobb Deep – and his rhymes paint a cinematic picture of his environment. Due to the record’s consistent quality and vision, picking any one song to exemplify this is an almost impossible task, but the most apt may be ‘Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)’. The song, somewhat unsurprisingly, sees Nas talking about his past; rhyme schemes such as ‘My pen taps the paper then my brain’s blank/ I see dark streets, hustling brothers who keep the same rank/ Pumping for something, some uprise, plus some fail/ Judges hanging n*ggas, uncorrect bails, for direct sales’ embody the rapper’s grim poetic vision of New York.
The production of the record, handled by hip-hop heavyweights such as Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip, is also undeniably classic. The beats are muted grayscale masterpieces which weave perfectly with Nas’s gritty aesthetic. Using a mixture of samples from vintage soul, funk and blues records, the jazzy, low key backing tracks give Nas the platform to paint his picture of Queensbridge life. However, Nas does not eclipse the instrumentals. In most songs the chorus section consist of the rapper closing his mouth while the beat runs and vocal samples are scratched over the top, allowing the producer’s work to breathe.
The album’s legacy speaks for itself. ‘Illmatic’ is one of the only 15 records to be awarded The Source’s highest review score of ‘five mics’ upon its original release. It is one of the forerunners in any discussion of ‘best hip-hop album ever’ and has topped many lists covering the topic. Furthermore, New York newspaper The Village Voice awarded the record the title of ‘Most New York Album Ever’ earlier this year. As previously mentioned, it has been the subject of academic study. Sohail Daulatzai, one of the co-authors of the aforementioned work, likened Nas’s dystopian vision of New York to Edgar Allen Poe’s of London in a recent interview with VICE magazine.
However, the albums undoubted success does have its downsides. Despite a long and illustrious career, most hip-hop fans would admit that Nas has never again hit the heights ‘Illmatic’ reached. He has released some great records, and some individual songs, such as ‘Nas Is Like’, are arguably better than any song from ‘Illmatic’ taken out of context. But, none of these have contained the widescreen quality and holistic aesthetic that his debut does. Even if Nas has never made another record as strong as ‘Illmatic’, he can console himself with the fact that few others have.