How Illmatic stayed fresh and exciting 23 years after its release.
This year marks 23 years since Illmatic was first released, and it still sounds as fresh and vibrant as ever. Every hiphop head I’ve spoken to recalls vividly the first time I heard it. Everyone says the same thing, similar to “whoa, what is this?!” because thats the effect Nas has on people.
That’s how much better Nas was when he first came out. Illmatic is 10 tracks long, nine full songs and one skit, which comes right at the beginning. There’s only about a minute and a half of instrumentation, including the skit, before Nas comes in with those famous first words. “Rappers I monkey-flip em with the funky rhythm I be kickin, inflicting, insane compositions of pain!”. It was incredible.
The way nas had daisy chained those sonic, multi-syllabic rhymes was years ahead of his peers. Flash forward to today, where modern hiphop is at stark contrast to the boom-bap of the eighties and nineties, but you would still have a hard time finding a hiphop head without Illmatic in between his Lil Uzi Verts and Young Thugs.
But there are many, many albums that came out in the “golden age” of hiphop: Ready To Die, 36 Chambers, Gang Starr. So why has Illmatic had the staying power?
Before Nas dropped his debut Illmatic, he had only been introduced to the world in one verse, from Main Source’s 1993 album Breaking Atoms. “Live At The Barbecue” was the name of the song, and with this one verse Nas had created a wave.
Reports from Brooklyn at the time talk about how everyone was trying to find out who this Nas kid was, and why he had such an amazing verse on a mediocre album. 1994 rolled around, and Illmatic dropped and answered the question.
Nas was the epitome of the street poet, and at just 19 years old had knowledge to give that was wise beyond his years. Similarly, his flow was years ahead at the time, and with the possible exception of the Notorious B.I.G., was the best in the game.
Rakim created the concept of rhyming within the bars, and using multi-syllable rhymes to flow; but Nas took it and ran with it hard. “It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, and prevail, the mic’s contracts that I attract clientele”.
It was intelligent and you couldn’t always quite understand what he meant on the first listen. His content was something else. In the 10 tracks, Nas takes you on a walk through his life, from the gritty crimes to passing knowledge and jewellery on to his young ones. Trips down memory lane, and into his state of mind.
The beats were on par with the best ever, getting help from New York’s finest beat makers at the time. DJ premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest each take part in handling the jazzy, but strictly boom-bap production.
Even the artwork is iconic, with a young, maybe 6 year old’s Nas face layered on to a typical New York street. He already has a solemn look on his face. it sets the mood for the album and symbolises how the streets have effected Nas as a baby.
Illmatic‘s influence spreads far and wide and it is almost obvious when you look at the discographies of someone like Jay Z, who changed his whole persona after Illmatic dropped. Those 10 tracks made rappers all over America step their game up, and let them know that it was more than a game anymore.
Illmatic is so good, you can still find yours truly listening to it at least once a day, revelling in Nas’ voice telling me the world is mine.
– DECLAN MCLENAGHAN