20 years ago on April 19th, Nas released Illmatic. Now, I try my hardest to avoid superlatives unless there’s some kind of consensus within the hip-hop community. For example, I don’t know too many people who’d disagree with me saying Rakim is the greatest MC of all time. But when it comes to other categories like greatest song or greatest producer, I try to say “one of the best” or “considered the greatest by some.” But with Illmatic, it’s a different story. I've always believed that there are only a handful of hip-hop albums worthy of being considered “the greatest”: Paid In Full by Eric B. & Rakim, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, and The Chronic by Dr. Dre. But as iconic as these albums are, for me, Illmatic stands above them.
As with all great works of art, in order to truly appreciate the masterpiece that is Illmatic, you have to understand the time in which it was created. When Dr. Dre released The Chronic in 1992, hip-hop’s focus shifted from its birthplace in New York to Los Angeles. Dre’s production style, which heavily sampled the likes of George Clinton and Zapp & Roger, created the sound that became associated with west-coast hip-hop known as G-funk. The impact of The Chronic wasn’t simply from a production standpoint. It solidified gangsta rap as the dominant and most popular form of hip-hop. While east-coast groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Gang Starr found success by favoring more socially conscious music, they weren’t nearly as big as west-coast rappers.
When Nas finally released Illmatic, it was unlike anything the hip-hop world had ever seen before. The subject matter itself wasn’t anything new. You could hear about drug violence, police brutality, and life as a struggling young black male in many of the gangsta rap records that were coming out of the west coast. What made Illmatic stand out was Nas’ lyricism. Most gangsta rappers’ lyrics relied on shock value. They gave the people what they wanted: violence and vulgarity. And to their credit, they pushed millions of records with this successful formula. But Nas wasn’t out to top the charts. He just wanted to tell a story, his story. The lyrics of Illmatic neither romanticize nor glorify his life on the streets of Queensbridge. They simply paint a vivid picture that takes you straight into his mind. Nas invites listeners to take a walk with him through his neighborhood and experience life as he sees it. Never before had a rapper talked about everyday life in the streets in such a poetic way. But as great as the Nas’ lyrics were, the production on Illmatic was just a good. With the exception of Dr. Dre, nearly every great hip-hop producer contributed a beat to Illmatic. The production credits read like a who’s-who of beat makers. DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip all contributed to this record and the beats have become just as iconic as Nas’ lyrics.
Upon its release, Illmatic was met with universal acclaim and even received the coveted “5 Mics” from The Source, which was the highest honor a hip-hop record could get at the time. And while Illmatic wasn’t an immediate commercial success, it went gold in 1996 and platinum in 2001. And even more importantly, Illmatic helped shift hip-hop’s balance of power back towards the east coast. Even though Nas would be eventually be overshadowed five months later by the arrival of the Notorious B.I.G., Illmatic saved east coast hip-hop. Fast-forward 20 year later, Illmatic’s impact is still felt today. How, you ask? Well, I could write a novel listing every rapper who’s cited Illmatic as an influence, but instead I’ll point you no further than hip-hop’s current flavor of the month: Kendrick Lamar. There's a reason why both casual hip-hop fans and hard to please ones like me are in love with Kendrick. good kid, m.A.A.d. city might as well have been titled Illmatic II. Even though good kid, m.A.A.d. city is more of a concept album than Illmatic, both albums tell the same story, just set 3000 miles apart. But like I said, Kendrick Lamar is just one of dozens of rappers who have been influenced by the perfection that is Illmatic. But this perfection has been both a gift and a curse for Nas. Most hail him as one of the greatest MC’s ever, putting him in the same class as Rakim and KRS-One. But there are others who criticize him for not recapturing the magic of Illmatic on his other records. I’ll admit there was a point in time when I thought Nas was a bit overrated. But instead of criticizing Nas for not having a perfect discography, I chose to thank him for giving us the greatest hip-hop album of all time.