Four months before Brooklyn's Notorious B.I.G. famously declared, "You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far," Queens native, Nas released his landmark debut, Illmatic, which would take hip-hop further into the stratosphere.
A high school dropout that grew up in the harsh Queensbridge projects, Nas, at 19 preached to the world what the reality was like in his universe. Illmatic was the gospel. It was the news report that the mainstream media would not dare to broadcast. It was the parts of New York City that people mentioned in conversation but never went to understand or wanted familiarity. It was the autobiography of a man who lived and saw more in his life before he reached 20, than most experienced in a lifetime. It was Illmatic.
In the months ahead of its street date of April 19, 1994, Nas himself leaked the album, so he could gain some social networking in an era before the Internet was in every home. Illmatic was more than a hip-hop album; it was jazz, it was poetry. It was a smack in the face to those who were on the outside, it was the life stories of those that were on the inside of what the real New York and the real America faced.
Like another Queens artist, The Ramones, who showcased the rawness of New York City in their music, Nas showcased the grit of the Big Apple. Opening the album with the sound of the subway coming into Queensboro Plaza, it created the setting right away in the listeners mind. You can hear the streets around you, you can almost smell the vendors selling dirty water dogs and stale pretzels, you can see the crackheads on the corner. You can see the hustlers trying to push and make a buck, you can feel the dice slam against a brick wall as guys are making bets. It is a world that most, like myself, only saw in movies like Mean Streets, Boys N The Hood, Menace II Society, and the work of Spike Lee. Nas provided that atmosphere with a soundtrack. This was the era of Guiliani's New York, but not what Nas and others in his case were feeling.
Opening with a triple threat of songs like, "N.Y. State of Mind," Nas goes wax poetic saying, "I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death. Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined. I think of crime when I'm in a New York state of mind." It did more than strike fear into the listener, but displayed that it was survival of the fittest in this particular world. Followed up by "Life's A Bitch," where singer A.Z. sings the hook, "Life's a bitch and then you die. That's why we get high. Cause you never know when you gonna go," never has a hook explained so much about something than in that track and still be so damn catchy at the same time. Then going into "The World Is Yours," it is a line made famous by Scarface, but for the kid from the projects it was his eye on the prize. It was a line that was going to get him to go far in life and reach for a goal and not die in the streets he was raised in like so many of his peers. Nas dared to dream and showed an entire community to do the same.
Aside from the lyrical genius of Illmatic, the defining moments of that record are in the samples and production. With beats and invention by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., Large Professor, Illmatic was the first hip-hop album to feature multiple producers on one LP. Now, it is common practice. Before Biggie put his baby image on his debut, Ready to Die, Nas showcased his child picture on the cover staring down the reality of Queensbridge. In that cover, the boy looks tough as nails but scared as hell. It represented everything about America's youth growing up in that system. It was sink or swim and for Nas, Illmatic had to be his way out. Illmatic could have been recorded and released today because the system is still broken.
Now, 20 years later, Illmatic is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hip-hop album of all time. It paved the way for artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, the A$AP Crew, to come through with their music. It also gave way to two acclaimed books, Born to Use Mics and 33 1/3 series on the LP, both books explore the cultural impact the record had at the time and how it extended through all time. As Nas celebrates the reissue of Illmatic with the anniversary edition, Illmatic XX, a headlining set at Coachella, and the documentary, Time is Illmatic, which will open the Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theater this year -- who would have thought that hip-hop would take it this far? Nas did. As he said, "I'm destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it."
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