Two decades ago, on April 19, 1994, Queensbridge’s favorite street prophet, Nas, released his landmark debut album Illmatic. It quickly became one of the most celebrated rap albums ever and helped revive the New York sound of hip-hop. I was a freshman in junior high school when Illmaticfirst hit the streets and I remember that album being something fresh for rap listeners. It was a combination of rebelliousness, melodies, and street realities. Nas told stories that celebrated New York City street life during the Mayor Dinkins era.
Illmatic was the very first rap album I listened to entirely in my Walkman. As a listener, I felt Nas’ street tales were from the pages of a Donald Goines’ novel how he painted pictures vividly with his inner city narratives. Nas had a unique style of delivery and lyrical substance. He took the art of rapping and wordplay to unprecedented heights, and inspired his rap peers to put more emphasis on their rhymes.
Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip laced Illmatic with some of the finest music ever. Nas’ voice matched well with the jazzy beats. “The World Is Yours,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “One Love,” and “N.Y. State of Mind” are renowned rap songs. Nas put together a flawless debut album. The Source magazine rated Illmatic five mics, their highest rating for an album. Many rap fans commonly argued that Illmatic is hip-hop’s greatest album, and heralded it as the “hip-hop bible”.
Illmatic's poignant cover, a close-up picture of Nas as a young boy, became synonymous with greatness. Rappers such as Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Wayne copied the concept for their rap masterpieces Ready to Die and Tha Carter III. The covers of those albums are indications how Illmatic changed hip-hop forever and influenced many rap stars.
20 years later, Illmatic still resonates with today’s young generation. Crime is still rampant, young men are gunned down, and drugs are plentiful in poor communities. Daily life has not change in ghettos since Illmatic's release. The youth can relate to the message of Illmatic, and the content of that superb album is relevant today.
Thank you, Nas, for sharing your game changing gem with the world!