Tomorrow, we celebrate a monumental day in rap history: the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic. Usually, such a milestone would officially mark this album a classic—but let’s be honest. Illmatic received that honor a long time ago, when it first hit the shelves of record stores. Before April 19, 1994, rap fans had never heard anything like Nasir Jones. For many, he was rap’s first real poet. Just look at these lyrics from Life’s a Bitch, “Time is Illmatic/keep static like wool fabric”. Or these from One Time 4 Your Mind, “I shine a light on perpetrators like a cop’s car/From day to night, I play the mic and you’ll thank God”. And then there’s this gem from N.Y. State of Mind, which is probably the single greatest line on the album: “It drops deep, as it does in my breath/I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Oh, and this from The World Is Yours: “I keep falling but never falling six feet deep/I’m out for presidents to represent me (say what?)/I’m out for president to represent me (say what?)/I’m out for dead presidents to represent me.” Dead presidents=those dead guys we see everyday on our currency. And the list goes on, and on, and on.
Illmatic was an instant masterpiece. It set the bar for all debut rap albums to come—and very few have gotten close. It’s had a profound impact on hip-hop, molding the styles of everyone from Jay Z to Eminem, from The Game to Kendrick Lamar. Even the cover art—Nas as a young boy—has influenced the covers of many rap albums that followed (think Biggie’s Ready to Die, which was released in August of ’94, or Lil Wayne’s Tha Carta III and IV). The album title, according to Nas, means: “supreme ill. It’s as ill as ill gets. That sh*t is a science of everything ill.” And twenty years later, that definition still holds true. Illmatic had no crazy instrumentals, no famous guest appearances. Only the raw simplicity of early 1990s beats, mixed with the sounds of funk, soul, and jazz (Nas’ dad provided the cornet solo on Life’s a Bitch). The only guest vocals came from Nas’ childhood best friend AZ, who delivered a nasty, memorable performance on Life’s a Bitch.
However, the real treasure of this work is Nas’ talent. His verses trick you into thinking that you’re hearing something beautiful—and the real trick is that you are. You’re listening to a ghetto poet, a brilliant wordsmith who describes his grim and impoverished Queensbridge lifestyle with vivid imagery and flawless delivery. Even his voice—that raspy tone—is absolutely perfect. But the most impressive thing of all: Nas was 19 years old when he recorded this album.
To celebrate this 20th landmark, Nas is releasing a remastered version of the album on April 19, 2014—the day of its anniversary. This new rendition will include a second disc that features remixes of original songs, as well as unreleased tracks from that point in Nas’ career. The legendary MC will also embark on a national tour, where he will perform the entire album at each stop.
Illmatic is one of the greatest rap albums ever recorded; so great, in fact, that it usually finds itself in the Top Five of every hip-hop junkie’s list. It marked the beginning of a career that has given us of plethora of masterpieces to add to our collections, such as It was Written, Stillmatic, God’s Son, and Hip Hop Is Dead. With his debut, Nas became one of the great pioneers in rap, steering the direction of the genre. Today, the man is a god—and Illmatic stands as his very first gift to the world.
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