Time is Illmatic. Nas’s debut album Illmatic is the crown jewel of the mid-’90s classics that still define the genre. Unlike Biggie’s Ready to Die or Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, which were released in its wake, Illmatic was the game-changer that forever transformed the landscape of East Coast hip-hop. Not only did it establish Nas as the Best Rapper Alive for 1994. it raised the stakes for hip-hop production, lyrical technique, content, and overall artistic ambition. As the album’s first single announced off the top: “It ain’t hard to tell, I excel then prevail.”
Over the last nineteen years, the taut ten-track meditation on the universal struggle of a young man growing up in the Queensbridge Houses has remained resonant and relevant. It was just as likely to be bought on cassette or vinyl as it was on CD, and it revolutionized hip-hop in a way not seen since Run-DMC’s seminal debut. On the 19th anniversary of Illmatic, we recount the ways Nasty Nas blew the frame off its hinges.
Written by Rob Marriott (@Tafari)
10. Established the King of New York Title
Although Biggie would coin the term Frank White, named after Christopher Walken’s character in the 1990 film King Of New York, the KONY concept was established with Illmatic. Rarely has the birthplace of hip-hop been so unanimous in praise of a rap record and the MC who made it. And it came at the moment when Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had established the fact that the Best Rapper Alive could come from all points on the compass. But holding the title KONY is akin to the papacy of the rap-a throne that can only be occupied by Gotham city’s reigning lyricist. Illmatic became the standard by which all subsequent KONY applications would be judged.
9. Galvanized the East Coast
Illmatic set off a seismic shift in rap geopolitics. The album galvanized Queensbridge hip-hop and by extension East Coast rap as a whole. Starting with AZ’s sublime guest spot on “Life’s A Bitch,” rappers like Mobb Deep, Tragedy Khadafi, Nature, Cormega, Noreaga, Capone, Raekwon, Ghostface, and even the Windy City wordsmith Common seemed to find new inspiration in Nas’ self-awareness, internal rhyme schemes, and mastery of street detail. Rappers had to step it up-think Ghost on “Verbal Intercourse”-and it resulted in a boom of substantive self-conscious realness in East Coast rap.
8. Brought Real-Life Gangsters to Popular Culture
Name-dropping mythic real-world criminals in raps was a rarity in 1994. Aside from the West Coast’s habit of banging on wax, hip-hop spoke little of the real-life characters running the streets. But Nas started something when he alluded to real street kings like the Supreme Team and Alpo on “Memory Lane” or Pappy Mason on “The World Is Yours.” That song set off the documentation and marketing of the real-life street legends and their life stories. Magazines like FEDS and Don Diva and movies like Paid In Full and American Gangster followed. Rick Ross damn near made a career of it.
7. Inspired the film Belly
There is solid evidence that Illmatic inspired the entire film. Why else would Hype cast non-actor Nasir as the lead? Add to that the number of scenes from the film that were lifted directly from the album including the entire last third of “One Love.” Or the scene where they dramatize the line from “N.Y. State of Mind” in which Nas says “Give me a Smith and Wessun I’ll have niggas undressing.” No wonder the critics called Nas’s raps cinematic.
6. Made Jay-Z Switch His Style Up
There is a pre-Illmatic Jay-Z and a post-Illmatic Jay-Z. The Brooklyn MC switched his style up from his fast-talking Jaz-O days enough to produce Reasonable Doubt, an album marked by Nas-like introspection as well as Premier production. Jay’s poetic approach owed a clear debt to Illmatic, although Jay shifted to more lucrative flows by his next album. His samples (“Dead Presidents” samples the “World Is Yours”) and name drops (in “Where I’m From” Jay poses the question “Who’s the best MC Biggie, Jay-z, or Nas?”) telegraphed Nas’ influence on Jay, as Nas would point out during their epic battle a few years later.
5. Solidified The Source’s 5-Mic Rating System as the Standard
The debate at the time over whether or not Illmatic deserved the five-mic designation in The Source ran especially hot and revealed the importance of the magazine’s rating system to a burgeoning hip-hop nation. West Coast artists grumbled that the five mic rating was proof positive that the “bible of hip-hop” was East Coast biased, especially after The Chronic got just four and a half mics. And while other albums would be deemed classic afterward, the rating system would later be compromised for various reasons ending with -zino and never again be respected enough to be so passionately debated.
4. Set a New Benchmark for Production and set DJ Premier On an Epic Run
Pulling together every top hip-hop producer on the East Coast assured that Illmaticwould defines the sound of New York for the era. Nas inspired all of his producers-Pete Rock, Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, and LES-to creates organic blues rap for the modern era. Illmatic’s influence as a conceptual soundscape is still evident in records like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d. city.
More specifically, Illmatic established Premier as the go-to producer for the jazz-and-blues-inflected knock that became so central to East Coast sound. The Prairieview Texas native was primarily known as the DJ for Gangstarr until he crafted the tracks for “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park),” and “Represent.” After that, it became a rite of passage for a New York MC to spit on a Premier track. Jay-Z, Biggie, and Jeru all enlisted Primo for the debut albums. Even now, Joey Bada$$ continues the tradition.
3. Passed the Torch From Rakim
There was a re-alignment in the hip-hop cosmology after Illmatic. In much the same way that Run-DMC’s first album drew a line in the sand between old school and new school., Nas’ debut ushered in a changing of the guard as the former kings of hip-hop found themselves having to compete with young guns who were evolving the art. Illmatic laid bare Big Daddy Kane’s R&B excesses and Kool G Rap’s lack of vision. Even Rakim, who laId the foundation upon which Nas built his opus, found himself in a kind of limbo once Illmatic established Nas as his second coming. The God MC whose mind-expansive work on Paid In Full and tracks like the “Ghetto” and “Follow the Leader” fueled Nas’ creativity, spent the next several years in hip-hop absentia, maintaining his legendary status, but releasing little work.
2. Introduced New Words and Concepts
Wisdom is leaking out Nas’ grapefruit. Illmatic’s precise poetry introduced new terms and phrases that infiltrated hip-hop’s lexicon. “The World Is Yours,” Nas’ reference to the blimp in Scarface, has remained a trope hip-hop has taken to heart, and as such bears the dubious distinction of spawning countless lesser incarnations-Shaq Fu’s acronym TWISM (The World is Mine) comes to mind. Other Nas-isms that caught fire: “Sleep is the cousin of death,” “half-man, half amazing,” and even the word “Illmatic” itself, which became synonymous with anything surprisingly excellent, street-born and/or out of left field.
1. Set the Bar for Album Cover Art
Before Illmatic, rap album covers followed a fairly rote set of cliches: insert rapper X, chilling in a B-boy stance, add girls, cars, gold chains, assorted weapons, simmer and serve. For his debut album, which was essentially an autobiography set to a soundtrack, Nasir Jones employed a very personal touch: a close-up picture of himself as a kid, superimposed over the project buildings that informed so much of his existence. In the process, he created his own album cover cliche.
Illmatic’s poignant cover matched the mood, tone, and qualities of this introspective album to such a high degree that it became an instant classic, hailed as a visual full of meaning and nuance. It remains one of the most remixed album covers of all time. When a rapper aspires to greatness, Illmatic is the cover format. Sullen baby pictures superimposed on a streetscape? Check! A shortlist of Illmatic-ish cover concepts includes Ready to Die, Tha Carter III, Good Kid, M.A.A.d City, and approximately 9,459,834,865,263,504 mixtapes (J-Cole’s Villematic to start with).