Story originally published on The 5th Element Magazine Spring/Summer 2014 Issue
Do you remember Hip-Hop in 1994? Some key events may come to mind: Warren G heralded the G-Funk era previously established by Dr. Dre, with his West Coast anthem, “Regulate.” Southern hip-hop flourished with OutKast’s debut and the release of Scarface’s The Diary . On the East Coast, a few momentous things were goin’ down with The Notorious B.I.G.’s quadruple platinum classic, Ready to Die, and New York’s boom bap era was kept in excellent shape through legendary producers like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Pro. At the same time, a young Queensbridge native turned hip-hop on its axis with his penchant for storytelling, mastery of wordplay, and trademark New York state of mind. This was, of course, the man who would later be regarded as the original street’s disciple, Nasir Jones, and his debut in Illmatic was the album that changed it all.
The impact of Nas and Illmatic is evident in hip-hop, even after two decades, for a few reasons. Lauded as the second coming of Rakim, Nas trademarked a style of storytelling few could achieve. Illmatic was Queensbridge, personified, with Nas oscillating between grimy realism, existentialism, and textbook rap braggadocio. His unparalleled lyricism, rhetorical precision, and quick-witted wordplay has made Illmatic one of the most insightful (and quotable) hip-hop records of all time.
But what’s even more impressive about Illmatic was its ability to bridge hip-hop fans of all camps, whether they valued the stellar production, lyrics, or the impeccable execution of Nas’ wide range of emotions. To be sure, every hip-hop fan has a favorite moment from Illmatic. Maybe it’s the sinister opening bars of “New York State of Mind,” or the jazz-inflected, mechanical movements of “The World is Yours,” or even the reflective, almost nihilistic musings behind “Life’s a Bitch.” The album was as witty as it was dark and brooding, and as introverted as it was introspective, making the listening experience relevant to music fans of all backgrounds, whether you hailed from an NYC borough, or a quiet, suburban enclave in Cali, like me.
As Illmatic continues to commemorate 20 years of influence, fans have been treated to a nostalgic influx of Illmatic-themed media this year. Last month, he performed some Illmatic cuts on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmel, alongside Q-Tip and the Roots, in support of the album’s reissue, Illmatic xx, which dropped on April 15. Around the same time, Time is Illmatic, a new Nas documentary, premiered at the Tribeca Film festival. April was clearly the month of Illmatic. But even beyond all the excitement surrounding the album’s anniversary, it’s evident that fans will continue bumping his flawless work for many more months, years, even decades, to come. And with each repeated listen, we’ll continue to find newer, even deeper meanings.