Columbia Records · April 19, 1994
In 1994, hip-hop was beginning to gradually move away from its fundamental roots dating back to the 1970’s in New York City. The West Coast and G-Funk, popularized by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, were dominating airwaves all over the country. Alternative, experimental forms of the genre pioneered by legendary groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers were pushing the boundaries of what hip-hop could be. New fusions of culture and rap began developing in areas such as Atlanta, Georgia, where groups like Kriss Kross and Outkast were determined to put previously unknown regions on the map. Hip-hop’s future was rather uncertain, and with different sounds and styles popping up seemingly every day only the most gifted stood a chance to grab the genre by the horns and run with it.
Hailing from the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, New York, Nasir Jones was determined to prove his worth during this competitive time in hip-hop. Known simply as “Nas,” he was just 17 years old when he broke onto the rap scene with a surprising yet impressive guest feature on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” in 1991. He then followed up with the promotional single “Halftime” in 1992, which was debuted in the film Zebrahead. Despite these impressive first steps towards stardom and generating a large buzz within the hip-hop community, Nas was passed up by several record labels including Def Jam Recordings until being landed by Columbia Records. Determined to create an album that would prove his potential and be “the voice of a nation,” Nas subsequently spent the next two years recording what would turn out to be one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Numerous prolific New York producers reached out to help work on the album, which was anticipated to be the debut of a lyrical prophet heralded as the next Rakim.
After two years of recording, Nas’ debut studio album Illmatic was released on April 19th, 1994. The album’s title is both a tribute to his childhood friend “Illmatic Ice” and a saying meant to mean “beyond ill” or “the ultimate.” The album’s iconic cover shows a picture of Nas at the age of seven (when he started to acknowledge the world around him) placed over a picture of a Queens street. The concept of using a baby picture as an idea for an album cover became increasingly common in hip-hop following this album’s release, with artists such as the Notorious BIG, Lil Wayne, and Drake employing this style in their own works later on. The album runs 10 tracks long, totaling just under 40 minutes in length. It was supported by the five singles “Halftime,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “The World is Yours,” and “One Love.”
Upon its release, Illmatic debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200. Despite lower sales than expected and limited commercial success, the album was universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike. The album was regarded as a classic, and is credited with ushering in the term “instant classic” to art. The Source, an influential hip-hop entertainment outlet, gave the album a five mic rating, which was the highest rating an album could get. Legendary hip-hop albums like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had not even received such honors, and the rating was even more meaningful (and controversial) because it was given to a debut album by a new artist. Other publications from every corner likewise praised the album and interpreted it as a statement of undeniable, unprecedented talent from the Queens rapper.
One of the most praised aspects of Illmatic is its incredibly polished, yet rugged production. The majority of the production was handled by Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and L.E.S., who were the five top New York producers at the time. The group created a work that exhibited an overarching aesthetic that was a mesh of their collective talents and techniques. Illmatic incorporates elements of old school hip-hop, as well as using samples from the jazz, blues, funk, and soul genres. The producer firepower that went behind this work can be heard in the diverse sounds on the album. Definitive, powerful piano riffs, harmonic organs, and boom-bap percussions contrast and cooperate perfectly to walk the line between raw and alive, while giving the entire album a mystic, almost dream-like feel. Illmatic exemplifies variety from track to track, with minimalistic, ominous tracks such as “N.Y. State of Mind” standing alongside upbeat, jazz-infused tracks like “The World is Yours.” The sharp beats serve as the pages in the book in which Nas crafts his dense, tightly woven stories.
Apart from the production, the lyrical content exhibited on Illmatic has been the subject of musical, industry, and scholarly analysis since the album was released. Illmatic reintroduced an emphasis on lyricism and storytelling in hip-hop that had originally been revolutionized and pushed forward by the likes of Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, and Kool G Rap. Throughout all ten tracks, Nas illustrates incredibly complex wordplay and writing abilities. He uses literary techniques and rhyme patterns previously absent in the genre such as multisyllabic rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, and enjambment. On the track “N.Y. State of Mind,” for example, Nas exemplifies dominating command of internal rhyme schemes by rapping “And be prosperous, though we live dangerous, cops could just arrest me, blamin’ us, we’re held like hostages.” Nas’ technical skills as a writer enhanced his storytelling abilities, and the end product was a dazzling display of advanced vocabulary and literary techniques that did not take away from what he was saying. Rather, it only emphasized his points further and made them all the more real.
Another hallmark of Illmatic is the way in which Nas paints pictures detailing inner city life in Queensbridge. Nas uses a first-person voice to narrate experiences of crime, drugs, and violence from the perspective of a young boy involuntarily being exposed to it all. His stream of consciousness demonstrates a sense of authenticity and artistry; rather than telling the stories that sound the best, these are stories that needed to be told. They paint a vivid picture that has stayed with him and are being told again to bring awareness to these issues and help those going through the same. Nas describes people, places, and events in his life that bring the listener right to where he grew up. Thematically, the album ranges in topics from drugs and losing loved ones to pleasure and nostalgia. Nas’ ability to manipulate the English language gives him the freedom and flexibility to alternate between feelings of pain and joy, hope and despair, and anger and sadness at will.
This album, at the time of its release, was seen as a time capsule perfectly reflecting the state of hip-hop in 1994. Ilmmatic stood caught in between two distinct periods in the genre. The first of these was the “Old School” age of the 1980’s where pioneers pushed for a culture of storytelling and conscious, reflective content. The second was the immediate future after Illmatic, where braggadocious and “gangsta” rap would soon become the norm. Nas was seen as the gatekeeper of the genre who could both preserve the past and push the genre forward.
This album shook the music world and brought immediate attention back to the New York City hip-hop scene. The momentum curated by Nas and fellow New York artists the Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan during this time signified a return to regional dominance for the birthplace of hip-hop. The album influenced and helped shape the sounds of future New York legends such as Jay-Z, DMX, and Ghostface Killah. Illmatic also revitalized the East Coast hip-hop scene by launching the careers of artists featured on the album such as Brooklyn-based AZ and helped re-establish the producers who worked on the album as the best in the industry.
For the past 25 years, the album has left a lasting impact on the career of Nas as well as all rappers who have followed in his footsteps. Illmatic set an incredibly high precedent for Nas’ career after the album. In the years following its release he garnered criticism for releasing albums that, despite performing incredibly well commercially, were seen as “sellouts” and significantly lacking in quality in comparison. As a result, Illmatic has been seen as both a blessing and a curse for the Queens MC; a project that both immediately established him as a legend and also set him up for failure for the rest of his career. The album has also been established as the gold standard for a “great” rap album, especially with regards to an up-and-coming artist’s debut release. Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s 2013 Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City immediately found themselves being stacked up to Illmatic by hip-hop purists and longtime fans after it was released.
25 years later, this album is still regarded as the “quintessential” hip-hop album. Nas has gone on to release 10 studio albums since 1994, with three of them garnering nominations for “Best Rap Album” at the Grammys. However, to this day Illmatic remains his crowning moment and greatest achievement. April 19th, 1994 symbolizes the day he transformed from a young, hungry MC to an immediate legend in the genre. As time propels forward, one can only hope the influence and beauty of this masterpiece will never be undermined.