Two weeks ago, I took on The Chronic, West Coast rap’s most important export; this week, I’ll switch coasts and examine rapper Nas’s magnum opus: Illmatic.
In 1992, a Queensbridge native by the name of Nasir Jones began recording in New York his major label debut. He had recently been signed to Columbia Records, thanks in part to the recognition he received for his impressive feature on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” (1991). The 19-year-old rookie had the good fortune of linking up with some of New York’s most respected producers, including DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip. After roughly a year of recording, Illmatic was released in April 1994.
Illmatic‘s initial commercial performance was mediocre — it debuted at No. 12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and took two years to go gold. Critical praise for the album, however, started pouring in immediately. As rap’s golden era progressed and eventually came to a close, Illmatic emerged as one of the genre’s most important works. Today, it is almost universally heralded by music critics as the best rap album of all time.
That’s a pretty serious title for a record that clocks in at just under 40 minutes. And admittedly, the first time I listened to Illmatic, I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t immediately gratifying — or even immediately understandable. Nas’s employment of complex internal lines, his sheer love of words, and his relentless flow makes it impossible for a listener to fully grasp what he’s saying without listening closely. In other words, Illmatic is not background music.
So with each listen, I paid more attention. Each time, I discovered new metaphors, strings of multi-syllabic rhymes and instrumental nuances. That is part of what makes Illmatic such an impressive piece of work — it manages to marry depth with concision. In 40 minutes, Nas takes listeners through the streets of New York, reporting with almost journalistic precision scenes on the city’s streets.
There’s no better example of Nas’s lyrical prowess than “NY State of Mind,” the album’s second track. Nas intersperses vivid storytelling with classically descriptive language, effortlessly transitioning between the two. This unique stylistic choice allows Nas to give both a broad illustration and personal account of life in Queensbridge. DJ Premier’s beat is gritty and unadorned, a perfect reflection of the song’s subject matter.
Famously, you can hear Nas saying (in earnest), “I don’t really know how to start this man” to Primo before jumping in with unfettered bravado to one of rap’s most magnificent verses. It’s that kind of nuance that draws the line between a really good song and a legendary one.
But Illmatic is not considered the pinnacle of rap merely because its tracklist is nearly flawless; critically, Illmatic reminded rap of its roots. Whereas The Chronic created new archetypes in rap, Illmatic elegantly reinvigorated rap’s cultural foundations. At its core, Illmatic is an album that combines jazz and poetry. Yet, it is still undeniably contemporary, with beats that are timeless if not necessarily innovative. Likewise, its lyrics deliver common themes of hardcore hip-hop in a distinctly cerebral way.
And so, Illmatic is as culturally significant as it is musically significant. Everything from its sole feature (delivered by AZ) to its succinct hooks are impactful and purposeful. It is rap in its purest form, and reporting at its finest.
Nima Aminian is a junior majoring in economics. His column, Classics’ Corner, runs every other Thursday.