By Brian Harris
“I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block. I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat/Childhood lesson made me see him drop in my weed smoke.”-Nas, “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)”
20 years ago late last week, a young MC from the Queensbridge projects of NYC named Nasir Jones a.k.a Nas dropped his debut album, “Illmatic”, which took the genre of hip hop to new intellectual heights not yet seen.
The son of avant-garde jazz musician Olu Dara Jones, Nas took his analytical, intellectual and introspective brand of rhyming and on the ten trakcs that make up “Illmatic told the story of not only his life and times but also the life and times of the people and places around him.
On tracks like “One Love,” “The World Is Yours” and “NY State Of Mind,” Nas does a masterful job of spinning yarns about the current state of his home of Queensbridge that sucked the listener into the songs like there were running the streets alongside Nas.
It’s always been easy to compare Nas to Rakim, with their similar flows and storytelling styles. However, in his book “To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic”, William Jelani Cobb states that while an comparison can be made between the two iconic MCs, Nas stands on his own laurels, based off of “Illmatic.”
“Nas, the poetic sage of the Queensbridge projects, was hailed as the second coming of Rakim—as if the first had reached his expiration date….Nas never became ‘the next Rakim,’ nor did he really have to. ‘Illmatic’ stood on its own terms. The sublime lyricism of the CD, combined with the fact that it was delivered into the crucible of the boiling East-West conflict, quickly solidified [his] reputation as the premier writer of his time,” wrote Cobb.
The impact that “Illmatic” has had on the genre of hip-hop can be see both on the mike as well as in the studio. The jazzy, piano-filled beats that added ambiance to the words of “Illmatic”, produced by iconic NYC hip-hop players DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest allowed the realness that Nas spit on “Illness” slide seamlessly into the other East Coast hip-hop offerings of the time, including ATCQ and De La Soul. It was this combination of palatable beats along with lyrics that force the listeners to hang on every syllable that made “Illmatic” be one of the premier albums of not only 90’s hip-hop but hip-hop period.
To this day, “Illmatic” still has an impact on fans of hip-hop all over and it can be seen on the hip-hop today. In an interview with the blog 2DopeBoyz, Kendrick Lamar talked about the comparisons between his “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and “Illmatic.”
“Illmatic? For people to even put my album in the light of that, is an accomplishment. It’s crazy to even be mentioned with it but it’s scary at the same time,” Lamar said.
“Illmatic’s the album for the ’90s era when I was growing up. The stories he was telling was something I can relate to,” Lamar added.
It’s those stories that Nas tells in “Illmatic”, along with his signature, easy-going flow that helped Nas has the staying power that he has to this day, accorded to fellow NYC MC Action Bronson.
“It (Illmatic) sound as fresh as when it did when it first came out because there’s nobody since then that can come near Nas, lyrically, at all. Just his smoothness and his storytelling, just the words he chooses and the situations he rhyming about is just incredible shit,” Bronson said to XXL when asked about how well “Illmatic” holds up after 20 years.
Ultimately, what separates “Illmatic” from the vast majority of its peers is that it was one of the first to mix both introspective lyrics along with ear-pleasing beats in a way that sounds genuine to the listener. In an interview with Clash Magazine, Nas talks about this realness that is prevalent throughout “Illmatic.”
“Really, the topics that I talk about were topics that were around before ‘Illmatic’; streets, social economic status, people’s struggles,” Nas said.
“I just told it crazy real, and it just talks about how to live in the circumstances and goes beyond, dreaming at the same time. Never just stay in the situation that you’re in.”