I can’t say enough that Illmatic is one of my favorite albums of all time. Not just because Nas is one of my two favorite rappers of all time but because it’s a timeless record that is a gold standard for lyricism and production being married so perfectly.
As the 20th anniversary is celebrated Saturday, I want to just share my reflections from hearing it for the first time. I believe that if I heard Illmatic at any other time, it might have resonated differently to me but I think the timing was perfect. So here we go.
Back in 2003, I was still exploring Nas. I loved Stillmatic and I was getting into God’s Son - which was the first Nas album I bought. I lived through the feud with Jay Z and was getting ready to enjoy Jay’s farewell on the Black Album.
It hit me to finally listen to Illmatic - an album I had heard of for years but never bothered to check yet. So I began to search and download the album. This was back when the Internet was so tricky, you might have to download stuff before bed and wait til you woke up to hear it. So there I was on Bearshare downloading every track to Illmatic.
It’s one thing to hear it for the first time but to hear it at 19-20 makes you appreciate how far beyond his years was. I wasn’t on that level but yet Nas was. And he’d been that way for a while.
My first exposure to Nas was “Hate Me Now” and little did I know I was discovering Nas in the worst phase of his career. I remembered seeing “Nastradamus” on TRL and hating it. I hated “You Owe Me” before I knew hating it was popular and I really didn’t like “Oochie Wally”. So while I knew about Illmatic, I couldn’t reconcile it with the Nas I was seeing.
That’s why hearing this 10-song CD (9 and the intro) was an revelation. Just as I was discovering why Nas was called this great lyricist, Illmatic showed me why he was one of the greatest to ever be on the mic.
“Memory Lane” is pure poetry. The second verse is one of my favorites of all time because Nas paints a collage of his days growing up in Queensbridge. It’s a mesh of gangs, drugs, grit and Nas effortlessly makes you feel like you were there.
It's Nas at his best. The street poet with class ("Sentence begins indented/with formality"), insight ("I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace") and an eye for detail. DJ Premier’s beat puts me in a reflective mindstate all the time and I feel like I reflect over my own life and journey.
Then there’s “Life’s a B---h”. The song that made us recognize the greatness of Anthony Cruz, aka AZ. The only guest verse on the album and it’s possibly overshadowed AZ as much as Illmatic has overshadowed Nas’ career. Much has been said about it so I want to speak on Nas’ lines.
I woke up early on my born day, I’m 20 years, a blessing, the essence of adolescence leaves my body now I’m fresh in. My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it. One quarter through life, some Godly like thing created.
Hearing that at 19 and playing it on my 20th birthday just captured how I felt transitioning from teenage years to the 20’s. You feel grown. You feel your first sense of adulthood. I felt that when I heard Nas’ verse and as much as I loved the poetry of AZ, that spoke to me. As I turned 20 that September, that song and verse stayed in my mind. Even though it’s a bleak song, that gave me some hope.
From a music standpoint, everything blends well. The samples used on NY State of Mind match the grit of Nas’ rhymes. The World is Yours is optimistic with those Ahmad Jamal keys behind Nas’ smooth words. And “Represent” - man, how in the world did DJ Premier find that sample?? Still hearing the original gives me chills
It’s one of the first albums with a team of super producers. Before then, most albums were helmed by one producer or one group. For this album, you had a budding star working with the best of the best. You had Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, L.E.S. and Pete Rock all anxious to work with Nas and they blessed him with great beats. It set the stage for future rappers doing the same.
The main difference is that they all made a cohesive project. Every beat seems like it came from the same mind so it wasn’t just a “grab who’s hot”, it’s let’s collaborate and make art. That’s probably also a key reason (besides leaks) why Illmatic didn’t go platinum til 2001. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” and “The World Is Yours” are clear singles but the rest are mostly street songs with no hooks
Of course, a few months later, another album with another highly touted NY rapper came and stole his thunder with an even more radical approach. But that’s a story for another day (another rap classic I first heard in 2004). This is a celebration of Illmatic’s greatness that deserves to be listened to. Nas performed it at Coachella and brought me chills giving them renewed energy.
Illmatic is timeless because it has everything you want in an album. It’s inspired me as a writer and to this day, it inspires artists. There’s a freshness to it that sometimes is lacking in other Nas records and when you see people at Rock The Bells and Coachella respond to it - two different audiences - you know it’s a special record.
For me though, it reminds me of being a 19-20 year old in my dorm hearing it for the first time. It inspires me to write and it’s a reminder that for 40 minutes, Nas created a perfect album - yes, even “One Time For Your Mind” grew on me - that will be listened to for many years to come.