Writers Reflect on Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ at 25

Writers Reflect on Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ at 25

Queensbridge, 1994. Across the river from Manhattan, residents in America’s largest housing projects are fighting through unforgiving circumstances. Beginning in the 1980s, a dramatic influx of crack cocaine flooded the streets, leading to increased violence that caused residents to fear for their safety. For many aspiring artists, however, these chaotic surroundings become inspiration for burgeoning music careers.

Countless hip-hop pioneers — Marley Marl, Roxanne Shante and the late Prodigy, among others — have called this housing section their home, but on wax, it’s most closely associated with Nas, the living legend whose landmark debut Illmatic was released 25 years ago today (April 19).

Then and now, Illmatic serves as a time capsule, giving listeners a glimpse into the world of Queensbridge, painting a picture of the crime-riddled streets with clever wordplay and vivid storytelling.

Only 20 years old when the album was released by Columbia Records, Nas had wisdom beyond his years on Earth. He rapped with the poise of a veteran emcee, defying industry standards of the time as he recruited an all-star team of producers to lace the project with rattling, timeless beats.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Illmatic, we spoke with seven highly respected individuals in the music journalism space to hear their first impressions of the album — and how it’s impacted hip-hop culture over the past two-plus decades.

For some, that has meant watching the joy in their children’s eyes as they discover a classic album from a previous era; for others, it’s meant recalling memories attached to each of the album’s 10 songs — memories that are embedded in their identity. Whatever the reasoning, the reputation Illmatic holds today is just as strong — if not stronger — than when it was released in 1994.

Jayson Rodriguez, Writer, Creative Producer for Vevo

When Illmatic arrived, hip-hop wasn’t this hyper consumption community where people were devouring everything right away. Case in point, look at how Nas arrived on Main Source’s 1991 track ‘Live at the Barbeque.’ It was a guest verse, and you didn’t get another guest verse until MC Serch’s ‘Back to the Grill’ in 1992,  and, from there, it was another two years until Nas’ ‘Halftime.’

When the album arrived, it didn’t arrive with that mainstream acclaim. Nas was kind of this prophesied act. I remember hearing a of couple records, and he just has this verbal intensity where you’re just wondering, ‘Who is this person?’ He wasn’t ushered in as part of a movement like how Biggie was [introduced] with Bad Boy, or Method Man and Wu-Tang; he was just this singular entity.

I think because of that, there was less of a magnetic pull toward him. Maybe some of that was a result of The Source Awards in ‘95 when Biggie swept up everything that Nas was kind of expecting to get. That didn’t happen until It Was Written came out in 1996, where we were pushing toward pressing the margins of hip-hop into the popular mainstream with MTV and Rolling Stone.

For me, personally, that’s when I revisited Illmatic as a complete entity, and just listening to it, it was this unique thing. Ten tracks, 40 minutes, very dense lyrically, like each line is so intricately packed. It has these internal rhyme schemes where he’s able to put so much vivid storytelling into each line. I’ve always said he’s the hip-hop Hemingway in that regard; it’s almost like each line is a short story connecting to this larger narrative. The older you get, when you revisit Illmatic, you’re like, ‘This dude created this when he was 18?’ I think that’s when the prophecy becomes actualized. We look at this guy like this prodigy [who] ages into this mythic figure.

[The album] was done in a way that ushered in a lot of modern album-making. Illmatic [introduced] [...] a la carte production, using Q-Tip, LES, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock. That hadn’t been done at that time. Now, it’s very vanguard to do that.

The album was so micro, in its delivery and presentation, I don’t think anybody was able to poetically package and describe the mundane day-to-day. Unless you grew up in that environment or adjacent to it, you don’t realize the loving frame you put on where you grew up. Nas was able to take this poetic license. Queensbridge isn’t very large, it’s high, it’s built up. It’s not very wide or sprawling, so to just have this micro-lasered focus that ends up having this macro influence, it’s nothing short of amazing.

Wayne “Wayno” Clark, Host of Everyday Struggle, Dave East’s Former Manager

I was born in ‘82, so I was 11 going on 12 when Illmatic came out. My cousin who was like an older brother to me used to give me his Walkman. I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Listen to this.’ And it was Illmatic. I was in the Bronx River projects. I remember seeing the ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’ video; it was one of the records that immediately stood out to me. I loved how they used the sample, just the sound and the melody. He had the scully [hat] with the brim on in the video. At that time in the early ‘90s, it was when everyone was figuring out style, so it was a big deal.

‘Halftime’ was a big record for me as well. The crazy thing, I was fortunate enough to work with Nas since I used to manage Dave East. My cousin passed away two years ago, but him and Nas shared the same birthday. ‘Life’s a Bitch’ stood out to me, too. I wasn’t even going through tough times, but as a kid just hearing how AZ opened up that record spoke to me. The whole album means something to me. I can pinpoint exactly where I was with every song.

When we started working with Nas, the first few times we were around him it was just in passing. The first time I actually met him, I think it was when he did the Time is Illmatic movie, and we met at the premiere. Just growing a relationship with him, getting dinner and drinks, I got a little more in tune with who he was. He had let me know that he’s from Queens, but he spent a lot of time in Harlem since his dad lived there.

He explained how growing up in Queensbridge, that area is different than any other part of Queens, because they can see Manhattan. They can see the city, they’re the closest. So they have a different mentality when they’re getting up and looking across the water. It didn’t change my perception of the album because it’s still that album. I just couldn’t believe that I, personally, was around him.

Because I’m working in music constantly, I like to stay updated, but from time to time, I’ll throw [Illmatic] on. I have a son who’s 11 right now, and a 17-year-old daughter as well. I think ‘The World is Yours’ was [on] NBA 2K13, when JAY-Z did the soundtrack. So, my son would start singing the song from there; the way technology is, there’s always something there to remind us. Whenever I take a long drive to Philly or D.C., I’ll throw it on. I don’t have a ranking system, but it’s still in my top 10. Knowing [Nas] now at 43, but listening to what he was saying at 18 years old, as a manager it makes me want more from the younger artists I work with.

I manage a kid named TJ Porter. He told me Nas is his favorite rapper. I’m like, ‘How the hell is Nas your favorite rapper if you’re only 18?’ But when I look at it now, it’s a crazy case study in lyricism. Anyone who loves wordplay and wants to learn about metaphors and all these different things, you can definitely pick that up and learn a ton from Illmatic.

Keith Murphy, Writer

Illmatic was something of a departure for hip-hop; until that point, a lot of hip-hop albums were singularly produced. You would have your Dr. Dre-produced album, your Prince Paul, RZA, Erick Sermon. Hip-hop had become this landscape for great, great producers who were able to impose their will on an entire album.

When Nas’ Illmatic came out, I was maybe 19, or 20 years old. It was different because it was almost like a wishlist of producers that he was able to pull off, even as producers were trying to flex their muscles to get these absurd paychecks per track. We weren’t in the Neptunes era yet where producers were getting $300,000 per track, but it was getting there. This was different because you had DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock; it was ridiculous.

I think it’s a miracle that that album worked, because it could have easily been the case of all these producers trying to out-produce each other, and not having that synergy. I don’t know how they did it, but the tracks worked with each other; they led into each other, it was just a whole personality to that album. A lot of people started to copy that a little bit, they wanted to get all the producers, or work with a few per album. Up until that point, [it] was a singular producer’s world, [and] Illmatic changed that in a big way.

The whole album is a work of art, it’s like asking how The White Album held up, or how Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times held up, or Mary J. Blige’s debut held up. It held up because it’s beyond its time. Nas was in such a zone, he’s putting on a clinic on that album. He’s so good, that you almost forget how young he is. The whole album holds up because it’s all about the lyrics; it’s gimmick free, or trend free.

There’s no ‘party record,’ there’s no ‘I’m trying to get the West Coast’ record, or ‘I’m trying to sound like Atlanta,’ he’s in his own world. He creates his own world, that’s the reason a 16-year-old kid can pick it up and say, ‘This is relevant to me now.’ It’s one of the purest hip-hop albums ever made.

One more thing I want to add: that album was so great that it almost became an albatross for Nas; he found himself having to live up to that album. A lot of people try to put other debut albums on that level, but to me there are only a few debuts like that. Snoop’s Doggystyle, Lauryn Hill’s debut album, albums like that. OutKast’s debut.

When him and JAY-Z were going at it, the reason why JAY-Z was able to make such claims about ‘Oh, you only made one great album’ — even though we know Nas went on to make some other standouts — was because Illmatic was so singular that it almost takes its own universe.

Andre Torres, Vice President of Urban Catalogue at UMG

If you were there and in your twenties at that point during hip-hop’s history, it was probably one of the most anticipated drops I’ve ever witnessed. Coming off the singles, there was just so much hype around Nas, and the album in particular. Everybody was waiting with bated breath, it was really all you were talking about for months leading up to [the release].

He was just so wise beyond his years. He was creating a whole new blueprint for how to do this lyrics thing. My son is 15; he’s making beats now. We were listening to [American jazz pianist] Ahmad Jamal at dinner and talking about sampling, and the passage that Pete Rock uses for ‘The World is Yours,’ it came on and I was like, ‘You hear that?’ And then I put the Nas joint on, and my son was like, ‘Ahhh!’ He kind of pieced it together. It started a conversation about that record and the beats, and I started playing him originals from other joints on Illmatic, and one of the things that became apparent is that this album is like a fine, vintage wine. It just gets better with age. I think it’s a dynamic that works two-fold. It’s like a time capsule of that period. This is like the culture working at its highest level.

That appreciation that you gain from those repeated listens over the course of 25 years, and then you look at where the game is now. I’m not mad at the game, I’m not mad at the kids getting their money; go do you. But there’s no way anyone can deny the level of lyricism and thought that was put into constructing those songs on Illmatic.

My kid [will] bang out a beat in 15 minutes on his laptop. You can have it up on SoundCloud three hours later, already done and completed. It’s a different way of making music; this period in time was about reduction, it was about, ‘How do you take all of this and distill it into 10 of the dopest songs you ever heard?’ That’s why that album was so strong — you don’t skip anything on there. You put it on, and ride out from beginning to end. That’s a rare thing to find these days, especially in the singles-driven atmosphere that we work in.

No one gets a chance to relive those early years. JAY talks about how, for him, Reasonable Doubt was the culmination of all those early years. You only get that chance one time; when you make that second record, you’re going off when you made your first record to now. That’s a much shorter span to have to dig into; it’s all the background from Nas’ upbringing in Queensbridge and everything going on at the time, the post-crack era in the height of the golden era for hip-hop. You can’t repeat that.

Looking back on the album 25 years later, this is a moment that still stands as one of the highest achievements in music. No disrespect to Kendrick [Lamar], he deserved that Pulitzer [Prize], but Illmatic should have got one 25 years ago, too! The world hadn’t woken up to the kind of artistic contributions that young kids from the ghetto were putting out, and thank God that in the 25 years since, we’ve gotten to the point where an artist like Kendrick can be recognized for that. But if they ever give a lifetime achievement for the Pulitzer, they need to holler at that man.

Byron Crawford, Author of NaS Lost: A Tribute to the Little Homey

Well, let’s go back to the beginning. When Illmatic came out in ‘94, I wasn’t super familiar with Nas. I knew he had ‘Halftime’ and I knew he was on ‘Live at the Barbeque,’ [but] I don’t know if I had even heard that. The main thing I knew about Nas, and about Illmatic, was that he was, at the time, one of the very few people to get a five-mic [rating] in The Source. And I wasn’t even really up on the history of the five-mic [album] reviews, but I knew it had a reputation for being a big deal.

One or two episodes of Yo! MTV Raps were centered around Illmatic. I remember one had Nas, and then there was another one that had maybe all the producers, or at the very least it may have had Pete Rock and Q-Tip. So that was basically what I knew of Illmatic. I can’t remember if I copped [the album] the week it came out or later; at this point it’s been too long. In the moment, you don’t even really think about 25 years ago. But I definitely think the buzz surrounding Illmatic had to do with the fact that he had all the top producers at the time contributing to this album. That was probably like the first time you had a group of all-star producers all on one album. A lot of people have done it since, and I think that probably everybody who’s done that was influenced by Illmatic.

Listening to the album, I definitely thought it was amazing, maybe a little bit on the short side, but I was still listening to it when It Was Written dropped a little over two years later. The fact that Q-Tip worked on Illmatic definitely played into me being interested in the album. It was like in constant rotation for years, which is another thing that you just don’t see as much anymore.

I wrote NaS Lost: A Tribute to the Little Homey in 2013, so upwards of 20 years after the album came out. At the time I wrote it, I was actually thinking about doing a book that was more of a broader take on ‘90s rap, in general, rather than Nas in particular, but it became a thing where a lot of the artists I was thinking about writing about were either dead at that point, or not as relevant anymore. It also seemed like it would be a daunting task to write a book about an entire era. So I just decided to focus on Nas.

Anybody who grew up in that era has a lot of opinions about Nas and Illmatic and about what happened throughout his career. In the process of writing the book, I actually revisited Nas’ entire catalog. It didn’t change how I thought of Illmatic, because I always thought it was a great album and I still do, but it definitely brought home the fact that I haven’t really cared for Nas’ music post Illmatic.

Going into it, I probably would have expected to rank Illmatic number one, It Was Written number two and then the rest of them. And it didn’t work out quite like that. I can’t remember the exact order I put them in, but I know I don’t really like It Was Written anymore. I don’t really have any desire to listen to any of [his] albums except Illmatic, but that’s just me.

Paul Cantor, Writer

I think I was at his birthday party about 15 years ago. He was probably turning 30, there was a birthday party for him downtown in Manhattan. It was a different time period, around the end of that bling era, so he wasn’t quite as he is now. In terms of someone from this generation, he was probably where you’d put J. Cole right now, still on the scene but already had established a name for himself. But I remember that night being a big deal. I’ve been around him a couple of other times; I was always a little starstruck.

But when Illmatic came out, I might have been 10 years old, turning 11. I think my brother had gotten the CD. I’m from Staten Island. There’s an interesting line on ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell,’ he goes, ‘I sneak an uzi on the island, in my army jacket lining.’ I remember some of us in our neighborhood taking that to mean he was dissing us, even though he definitely wasn’t. We were young, though, so we didn’t know exactly what he was talking about at the time.

But my brother had the CD, I had a friend named Mike who had it, too. I remember us really liking the album, but it was a pretty dense record, so some of what he was talking about was going over our heads. It’s crazy to think about; I have a niece who’s that age now, she’s listening to things like Frozen. But that’s what we were playing back then.

Just the level of lyricism and writing on [the album], the introspection, it was such a deep album. It was written almost like a memoir of how he was growing up, regurgitating everything he had seen into music. So to be getting that in suburban Staten Island, lower middle-class, we were getting it through the radio, the videos, even Yo! MTV Raps to a certain extent. They weren’t even that into hip-hop at the time, but it is what it is.

I have one really great recollection of that album. Around five years ago, I wrote a lot of reflections on that album. I reviewed the Time is Illmatic movie for Billboard, I wrote a piece on Queensbridge, it had to be like five or six things. This memory came to me, this is the one I take away from this album.

It was a guy in my neighborhood who lived a few houses down from me. He moved in, probably in his early 20s, he shared the house with his brother. He had a huge stereo, he would always play music out of his house. He was a white dude, he was always trying to act like whatever he thought ‘black’ was. He was one of the first kids in the neighborhood to really start riding dirt-bikes and ATVs, he kind of introduced that to my neighborhood.

I was in his house one day; I was sitting in his living room and him and his brother are bagging up cocaine in the kitchen. They were playing Nas in the house, it wasn’t on super loud. His brother put on ‘Life’s a Bitch,’ and he had this big bag of cocaine in his hand. He pauses and turns around, and he says something like ‘Yo, turn that up. Illmatic is my shit.’ That memory really sticks with me.

Greg Kot, Music Critic at the Chicago Tribune for 29 years

I remember when Illmatic came out very clearly, back in ‘94. Massively hyped. I was subscribing to The Source, back when that was the hip-hop Bible. I think they called it the second coming when it was about to come out or it had come out. So there was so much anticipation for the record, probably the most anticipated record ever to that point.

There was so much expectation for kid from Queensbridge, it was nuts. I think part of it was that he was from a musical family; his father was obviously a very accomplished musician. But I also think there was a lot of rooted interest among the New York community, there was a feeling that New York needed [Nas] to reclaim its place. West Coast hip-hop was ascendant, it was all anyone could talk about in the early ‘90s. Obviously there was some great stuff coming out of New York still, but I think California was so hot with the commercial success with Snoop Dogg and N.W.A. It was a lot of pressure to put on a teenager, but he seemed very poised. It was apparent from the start that the record would be as good as advertised.

I don’t put a lot of stock in pre-album hype; a lot of time it’s a letdown. There were plenty of examples from that time period, of albums that didn’t live up. But Illmatic was definitely a classic. Whether or not it would be regarded as an all-time masterpiece, it was hard to say right off the bat, but you could tell this was not a letdown in any way when I first listened to it.

It’s interesting, in ‘94, I think the whole idea of a classic was a to-be-determined thing. Hip-hop wasn’t a multi-generational [genre] yet, it was still very much its generation, maybe a second generation. Generation after generation picked up on that album as a landmark, and with good reason. Illmatic is to hip-hop as [The Beatles’] Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was to the Baby Boomer generation, or The Clash’s London Calling was to the punk rock generation. For hip-hop, if you asked anyone to name the 10 greatest records of all time, the Nas record would definitely be in that category.

I don’t think it’s dated at all. I went back and listened the other day. It came out when New York was producing a lot of great stuff — A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were part of the scene, and obviously Public Enemy was still making pretty good stuff. But what California had hijacked was sort of the harder street edge, [whereas] the Tribe and De La Soul records were more jazzy, abstract, psychedelic. You looked to the West Coast and it was hard-edged, it had became the street vernacular. There was a reason it became so popular with the youth, it was representing their life in a very direct way.

When you listen to the production on Illmatic, it’s dense and richer, but also hard. It restored some of that edge to New York City. I may be overstating it a little bit, but I think on a wider scale, the perception was there that it was a hard-edged New York sound. When you look at the production, think of ‘The World is Yours,’ there’s an Ahmad Jamal piano loop on that song. The landscapes were just a lot richer than your G-Funk records at that time, it was about New York taking back the streets, but also informing it with the East Coast sensibility, which was always very sophisticated musically as well as lyrically.

And of course, he was just a flat out great MC, he was able to weave in that braggadocio with some of that vivid imagery. I think everyone I knew who was into hip-hop at the time was quoting that ‘I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death’ line from ‘N.Y. State of Mind.’ Those lyrics were becoming part of the culture, part of the lexicon of hip-hop, and by a wider area, among young people. He was hitting it on a lot of different levels, I think that’s why it doesn’t feel dated at all.

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