Twenty years ago, nineteen year old Nasir “Nas” Jones elevated the ever-evolving rap game to a new, unprecedented level with the release of his debut album Illmatic. Nas took listeners into the depths of his complex thoughts as well as allowed them to enter the seemingly nihilistic world of the largest public housing project in North America, the Queensbridge Housing Development of West Queens, New York, through a unique lyrical prowess alongside groundbreaking collaborative production. Although the album failed to achieve great success in terms of sales, many hold Illmatic to be one of the greatest albums of all time as it functioned as a “re-assertion of the principles and foundation of hip-hop,” according to former Vibe editor Alan Light, in addition to making Nas a legend and icon within the genre.
The evidence of the importance and status of Illmatic is found in the tremendous celebration of the album this year particularly. Primarily, Nas has released Illmatic XX, a twentieth anniversary edition that includes numerous remixes alongside previously unreleased demos and freestyles. He then debuted a documentary film analyzing the album entitled “Time is Illmatic” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Furthermore, Nas will be conducting an anniversary tour throughout the year that kicked off this spring at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. The media is buzzing with excitement and pleasure from Complex to the Toronto Sun to Jeune Afrique in Paris. Nas is taking us back in time, transporting us to the pain of his youth but also allowing us to experience his growth and change that have transformed him into the Nas of today.
What does Illmatic mean to you? Does it carry you into younger days? Does it drag you back to more tumultuous, turbulent times marked by the height of the War on Drugs hysteria and the police state? Does it make you feel less lonely in your struggle? I listened to the album growing up, mostly while riding with my older brothers as they rolled through the town, taking my grandma, sister, and I to and from church or the mall. I never understood its value and importance until very recently but I always knew it mattered. It was the anthem of pain and affliction that my brothers loved to bump and blast because Nas understood them and they were feeling him. It was life transformed into lyrics, a picture intricately painted with words. What is considered to be “classic,” particularly within Hiphop, is always a topic of debate and discussion yet Illmatic is perpetually described in conjunction with such a provocative word at the drop of a hat, as it should be. As Jeff Weiss said in his Pitchfork review of the album: “A classic album is supposed to define or change its time. Illmatic did both.” It was and is considered the standard of greatness. Some even consider it to be the “Hiphop Bible,” and to think that Nas was my age when this album was originally released is indeed mind-blowing. Nas has transcended beats and rhymes to produce stories with societal and historical significance that can be applied and translated to a variety of contexts. Such a feat could only be accomplished by a true revolutionary.
Brionna Atkins is a sophomore at the College studying Sociology with a secondary in Ethnic Studies. When she is not putting in work on the field hockey field, she is probably in a dining hall laughing loud enough to drown out all the voices around her. She may have an unhealthy obsession with J. Cole, Lauryn Hill, and Childish Gambino, but then again doesn’t everyone? (…or nah?)