When a twenty-year-old high school dropout from Queensbridge dropped his debut album in ‘94, the landscape of hip-hop changed forever. We explore the cultural context surrounding the release of Illmatic, provide an oral history of the creative process, and break the album down track-by-track.
This is a tribute to the legacy of arguably the greatest album in hip-hop history, and almost two-and-a-half decades later, it remains a quintessential benchmark of rap.
In 1993, a young entrepreneur named Dexter Campbell made the rounds to different record convention shows in the tri-state area, diligently taking notes for a blueprint of his own. His vision ultimately culminated in a creative hub that laid the foundation for an East Coast rap renaissance in the ‘90s.
Dexter Campbell’s legendary Roosevelt Hotel Record Convention was held every Sunday on the bustling corner of East Forty-fifth Street and Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, and as word quickly spread throughout the crate-digging community, it began attracting a bevy of hip-hop luminaries. Pete Rock. DJ Premier. Large Professor. Q-Tip. Lord Finesse. The 45 King. Kid Capri. J Dilla. Buckwild. Diamond D.
What I used to do was get a room the night before, and I’d go downstairs while [the record dealers] are walking in at 6 o’clock in the morning, buy 5 to 6 thousand dollars worth of shit, and take it upstairs to my hotel room. By the time I’m leaving, it’s 10 o’clock, so now I’m looking at Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Buckwild — all of them in line waiting to get in, watching me with this big box of music and coming back down to see if I can get some more shit!” – Kid Capri (2013)
It was an electrifying atmosphere of camaraderie and competition — countless producers and DJs hunched over eight-foot tables, shuffling through hundreds of dusty crates and cardboard boxes in search of rare vinyls. Records were spinning, conversations were buzzing, and people were perpetually peeking over shoulders to catch a glimpse of what the next man bought. A few of these same producers would set the tone for New York hip-hop for the rest of the decade, flipping obscure loops on the SP-1200 for one chosen lyricist in particular.
The Cultural Context of Illmatic
In the wake of youthful defiance, hip-hop was approaching a crossroads at the tail end of the ’80s, becoming less polished and commercialized. It was still a relatively young genre, and the music naturally began to diversify beyond the divisive dynamic between party records (MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice) and conscious rap (Public Enemy and Native Tongues).
Meanwhile, the stars were aligning on the West Coast.
Ice Cube dropped four consecutive platinum albums, Dr. Dre went triple platinum on his solo debut, The Chronic, and his protege, Snoop Doggy Dogg, went quadruple platinum with Doggystyle. West Coast gangsta rap had infiltrated suburban homes in mainstream America with the back-to-back seminal Death Row releases, and New York no longer had a monopoly on hip-hop. Even as groups like Onyx, Black Moon, and Wu-Tang Clan were slowly reclaiming their birthright through grimy, aggressive boom-bap (with varying degrees of success), the East Coast still needed a solo rapper to carry the torch and build upon the legacies of legends like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, and LL Cool J.
And in 1991, a raspy-voiced teen with a chipped tooth smile emerged straight out of the dungeons of rap.
I was just writin’ on the down low. I ain’t ever tell niggas too much about it, ’cause for what? If I wanna rhyme one day, then they’ll hear me.” – Nas (1994)
Nasir “Nasty Nas” Jones was sixteen years old when he met Large Professor on the steps of John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens. While working on projects for Kool G Rap and Rakim, Large Pro would sneak the baby-faced rhymer into sessions at Power Play Studios to record. He later introduced him to his group, Main Source, and Nasty Nas quickly gained notoriety after contributing a memorable guest verse on a posse cut titled “Live at the Barbeque” from their debut album Breaking Atoms:
Verbal assassin, my architect pleases
When I was 12, I went to Hell for snuffin’ Jesus”
The above video was the first time Nas ever rapped on stage, and Tupac, Bobby Brown, and Biggie performed “Party and Bullshit” on this same night.
A seventeen-year-old kid was talking about killing cops, kidnapping the president’s wife, and hanging people like the Ku Klux Klan, but there was a poetic quality to his wildly offensive raps, a level of lyricism that caught the attention of listeners. After shopping his demo all over the city to no avail, Nasty Nas met MC Serch of 3rd Bass and hopped on another posse cut titled “Back to the Grill,” rapping about waving automatic guns at nuns and sticking up preachers in the church.
Right there, Serch like, ‘Who you signed with?’ I’m like, ‘Ain’t nobody fuckin’ with me, man.’ So he was like, ‘Let’s do this!'” – Nas (1994)
After Nas was turned down by Russell Simmons at Def Jam Recordings for sounding too much like Kool G Rap, Serch met Faith Newman (an A&R at Columbia Records) that same day. Ironically, Faith had been looking for Nas ever since she heard his verse on “Live at the Barbeque,” and she refused to let Serch leave the building until they secured a deal. The label originally planned to have twelve songs on Nas’ debut album, but since it was so heavily bootlegged, they were forced to rush it out with only nine songs (excluding the intro).
We busted this guy in the Bronx, we got a tip from a dude, and the cops literally raided him and confiscated 70,000 cassettes that were about to hit the street with this terrible drawing of a rapper that was supposed to be Nas on the cross. Just a terrible drawing.” – Serch (2014)
Two years after his initial signing, Nas finally released his highly anticipated debut album — the cryptically-titled Illmatic.
This feels like a big project that’s gonna affect the world, that’s what it feels like we’re working on. We in here on the down low, confidential, FBI type shit, doing something for the world. That’s how it feels, that’s what it is. For all the ones that think it’s all about some rough shit, talkin’ about guns all the time, but no science behind it — we gonna bring it to them like this. We got some rap for that ass.” – Nas (1994)
The album cover is an old childhood photograph taken by Nas’ father, Olu Dara, a decorated blues and jazz musician. A young Nasir’s face is superimposed on a hazy reflection of the city fading into the horizon, and as he attempts to make sense of the insanity transpiring around him, his gaze becomes the window through which we experience Illmatic; it allows us to embark on a journey through the Queensbridge Houses — the largest projects in America.
The classic rap albums of the ’80s typically had one producer (or one team) curating a singular vision: Eric B. and Rakim, Rick Rubin and The Beastie Boys, The Bomb Squad and Public Enemy, Jam Master Jay and Run DMC, and Prince Paul and De La Soul. But Illmatic was backed by an all-star lineup of some of the most iconic producers of the decade — the same ones that were crate-digging and politicking at the Roosevelt Hotel Record Convention — who would rewrite the blueprint for years to come: DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and Pete Rock.
Nas was very picky. No lie, we went through at least 65, 70 beats on this album to find the ten that made the album. The most enjoyable sessions for me were the Primo sessions. I mean, Primo and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn’t a situation where his beats fit their rhymes, they fit each other.” – Serch (1994)
Oral History & Analysis: Track-by-Track
Illmatic begins with the rumbling of a train, which represents New York: the birthplace of hip-hop as well as Nasir Jones. It transitions into dialogue from a scene in Wild Style (1983) — the first movie about hip-hop culture (MCing, DJing, b-boying) — and it centers around a graffiti artist named Zoro, which was essentially the first element of hip-hop to blow up.
While the audio snippet of Zoro being lectured by his older brother plays, you hear “Live at the Barbeque” in the background, which was the verse that started his career. Nas’ younger brother, Jungle, then asks a simple question: “Yo, Nas, yo, what the fuck is this bullshit on the radio, son?” His answer came in the form of nine immaculate songs, just under 40 minutes. As the title implies, “The Genesis” integrates multiple points of origin (the train, Wild Style, “Live at the Barbeque”) and also functions as a bold statement of hip-hop’s rebirth in Illmatic.
“N.Y. State of Mind”
“N.Y. State of Mind is one of my favorites, because that one painted a picture of the city like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out.” – Nas (2007)
“Right at the beginning of the record, when he says, ‘Straight out the dungeons of rap, where fake niggas don’t make it back.’ And then there’s kind of a silence, where the music is building up, and you hear Nas go, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit.’ He just wrote it, and he was trying to figure out how to format it, like when to come in. I’m waving at him in the control room like, ‘Look at me, go in for the count.’ So right when he looks up and sees me counting, he just jumps in. He did the whole verse in one take, and I remember when he finished the first verse, he stopped and said, ‘Does that sound cool?’ And we were all like, ‘Oh my God!'” – DJ Premier (1994)
There’s a menacing quality to the jazz piano loops that Primo flipped, and he laced Nas with an ominous soundscape to deliver an onslaught of harrowing visuals. As the street’s disciple navigates through mazes of blocks in the city that never sleeps, he paints a dark picture of Queensbridge in the crack epidemic era. MAC-10’s. G-packs. Measuring pots. Stick-up kids. Gunfights with cops. Fiends selling broken amps. Moët and TEC-9’s. Despite being barely legal, Nas raps like a hardened war veteran reliving his days on the front line.
And who drops gems like “I never sleep — ’cause sleep is the cousin of death” at that age?
“Life’s a Bitch”
“I live in Queensbridge — been around for a long time — used to run with Shan and Marley back in the days. I knew it was just a matter of time before a brother would look out. Being that he had all these big name producers on his album, I felt kinda good that Nas picked me to do something. I was never really presenting shit to Nas though, and he ain’t really come to me for a beat. We was just in the crib chillin’, playin’ shit, you know, going through shit, and he was like, ‘Yo, that’s it.’ The kid AZ was there at the time, so he felt it when Nas felt it, and it was all right on time.” – L.E.S. (1994)
“The hook I had written… After the hook was there, they was like, ‘Damn, you gotta spit, dawg.’ I was like, ‘Aight, fuck it. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.’ I did it, and everyone liked it. That was it. It was history made.” – AZ (1994)
“I asked my dad to play on the end of it — I told him to play whatever comes to mind when he thinks of me as a kid. I think he’s really proud to see me coming up, taking my life serious and doing what I want.” – Nas (2007)
AZ was the only feature on Illmatic, and his legendary verse was the first he ever recorded in a studio: “Visualizin’ the realism of life in actuality // Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary // And my mentality is money-orientated // I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it“ — and that’s exactly what he did. AZ inked a deal with EMI Records, where he released his critically-acclaimed debut album Doe or Die.
The chorus is a rather cynical perspective on both the futility and brevity of life, and ironically, it’s become a timeless mantra that’s been sampled countless times in hip-hop: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die // That’s why we get high, ’cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” In the midst of fallen comrades — either doing football numbers in San Quentin or buried six feet underground — Nas remains optimistic having made it one quarter through life: “I switched my motto; instead of sayin’, ‘Fuck tomorrow’ // That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.”
“The World Is Yours”
“We were in my basement. Large Professor had brought him over. That’s when I actually first met Nas, when Large brought him up to Mount Vernon. We went through beats and stumbled across that one. It was already made, so I just popped the disc in, and he was like, ‘Yo!’ Next thing you know, we in Battery Studios knocking it down. When I was doing the scratches, Primo was there. He was just standing there, looking in amazement.” – Pete Rock (1994)
“At the time, getting a beat from Pete Rock was like getting a beat from Kanye West or Timbaland or fuckin’ Dr. Dre. I fought to get that [T La Rock] sample on there. Pete had a way of doing his beats, and he was Pete Rock, so I didn’t wanna interfere that much. But I had ‘It’s Yours’ in my head, and I thought it would sound ill. At the last minute, he fit it in there, I think at the mix. I didn’t know how he was gonna fit it in there, but it was perfect how he did it.” – Nas (2007)
In the final scene of Scarface (1983), Tony Montana is laying face down in a pool, bleeding out from countless gunshot wounds, and right above him stands a brass globe with bright neon letters that spell out The World Is Yours. Despite his violent death, the cult classic is celebrated as an inspirational tale of a hustler’s ambition, and those final words on the screen resonated with the smooth criminal on beat breaks. The chorus has a jazzy bounce that’s immediately uplifting, as Nas and Pete Rock remind us that the world is ours for the taking. This song is beyond rap — it’s poetry: “I sip the Dom P, watchin’ Gandhi ’til I’m charged // Writin’ in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin // Behold the mic I’m throbbin’, mechanical movement // Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with.”
“I went over [to Large Professor’s house], and he made the ‘Halftime’ beat in front of me, and he was gonna give it to me at the time. I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know why I didn’t know what to do with it, because I loved the shit out the beat. Then I heard it on ‘Halftime,’ and I was like, goddamn, I was a stupid ass for not touching this beat!” – Busta Rhymes (1994)
“The session for ‘Halftime’ was hot, ’cause he was getting his big chance. He had his weed already, Big Bo was there, Jungle was there, Wiz was there. I came through. I had the beat already. And we sat there, cooled out a lil’ bit. And he was taking it easy, ’cause he was like, ‘This is my turn now, and I’m gon’ make it count.'” – Large Professor (1994)
“I remember Busta Rhymes stopping by [Chung King Studios], and I met him. I guess he knew me from being with Large Professor, and my brother told him that he should leave Leaders of the New School and go solo.“ – Nas (1994)
Nas had built an incredible buzz from only two verses on posse cuts, and “Halftime” was his first solo debut, a single that was nearly two years removed from the release of Illmatic: “You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer // That’s like Malcolm X catchin’ the Jungle Fever.” He ends the song with a shout out (one of many) to his best friend: “Ill Will, rest in peace, yo I’m out.” They grew up together in the same building, and Willy “Ill Will” Graham DJ’ed for Nas when he was rapping as Kid Wave in his adolescent days. On May 23, 1992, Ill Will and Jungle were both shot at a party in Queensbridge, and only Jungle survived. Nas founded Ill Will Records in ’99 as a tribute to his slain friend.
“[Ill Will’s death] was the beginning of ’92; he had probably just started [recording the album]. He was out of pocket for a few months. I think he knew, or had maybe even a stronger conviction to finish the album. He was always a deep thinker, and different than a lot of the people around him in some ways, but I think it definitely affected him. If you listen to the lyrics after that, they’re certainly more introspective and maybe angry. And maybe this desire to be a success, to make something of himself, and be able to take care of Will’s family, or whatever it was, I think that he was more inspired.” – Faith Newman (2014)
“After I heard brothers like Q-Tip and Pete Rock’s joints, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta go back to the lab.’ Them niggas represented with they shit. When we did ‘Memory Lane’ towards the very end, he said he wanted something that was way different from the other stuff they did. […] Nas wanted to help me pick a sample for that, and he heard the Reuben Wilson sample, and he was like, ‘That’s it.’ I wasn’t really into that one. But he was like, ‘Yo, that’s it, Preme. Cook that up.'” – DJ Premier (1994)
“I just felt like all the shit I saw in Queensbridge, it meant something. For some reason, I knew this ain’t the average shit a kid my age is supposed to be seeing. I knew it was something special about what I was seeing, and it wasn’t all good. This was real life. It’s situations — whether it’s welfare, or my friends’ havin’ dope-fiend parents, or teenagers being chased by cops.” – Nas (1994)
“Every word that was spit came from something that happened or something that everybody was a part of. My man got shot for his sheep coat. Every word was happening all around us.” – Grand Wizard (1994)
Although DJ Premier initially disliked the sample, Nas clearly had a vision — it provides a nostalgic backdrop for him to wax poetic and reminisce. He raps with a stream-of-consciousness style steeped in Queensbridge slang, and his thoughts flow out freely as he pours “Heineken brew to [his] deceased crew on memory lane.”
Miss Info, who wrote the original five-mic review on The Source, spoke on her favorite lines: “My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses // Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real // A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja // Here’s my basis: my razor embraces many faces // You’re telephone-blown, black stitches or fat shoelaces…
“And that last half is the best because it is so specific to New York City in 1994. If you were around, you remember kids carrying razor blades in their mouth, spitting them out in a crowded club with a puff of air, slicing another kid’s face from ear to the corner of the mouth. That’s why, contrary to what all the lyric websites tell you, Nas is not saying that his telephone is ‘blowing.’ He’s saying ‘telephone blown,’ meaning your face has been blown wide open with a telephone cut (also known as a buck-fifty, because of the number of stitches you’d need). The last line refers to your scar, either stitched up or left with a puffy ‘shoelace’ keloid.” – Miss Info (2014)
“Large Professor told me that Nas had wanted to work with me, so one night he brought Nas and Akinyele by my crib. I played him a couple beats, and he just said, ‘That’s it right there.’ Later that night, he called and told me the concept for ‘One Love.'” – Q-Tip (1994)
“My man Ill Will was up north — bless the dead. He used to write me, call my crib collect, or I write him. All my peeps got locked up, my brother too. And that’s all they talk about, is who they seen in there, who they left in there, who they was chillin’ with, who they had beef with, who was makin’ noise and how they tryin’ to survive now that they home.” – Nas (1994)
Over arguably the most abstract beat on the entire project (Primo revised “Represent” after hearing the xylophones on “One Love”), Nas penned an epistolary tale that allows us a glimpse into a normally intimate affair — a series of letters to his friends locked up behind bars. The format itself is a testament to his brilliance, and Nas speaks on the bleak cycle of incarceration: grieving mothers, fatherless sons, and disloyal friends and significant others plotting in your absence.
And the way he drops names — Jerome’s niece getting shot and killed on her way home from Jones Beach and Little Rob selling drugs — adds a personal touch that forces us to take a step further into his world. But when Herb, Ice, and Bullet come home, it’s right back to the corners; this is simply a way of life for them. Despite it all, Nas maintains an unwavering sense of optimism and encourages his incarcerated partners to do the same. The final verse is perhaps the most poignant, a cautionary tale in the form of a conversation while smoking with Shorty Doo-Wop, a young drug dealer in his neighborhood:
“He said: ‘Nas, niggas caught me bustin’ off the roof
So I wear a bulletproof and pack a black tre-deuce.’
He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was sleep
Started coughin’, one eye peeked to watch me speak
I sat back like The Mack, my army suit was black
We was chillin’ on these benches where he pumped his loose cracks
I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard
Keeps me blasted and starts talkin’ mad shit
I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him
‘Cause when the pistol blows
The one that’s murdered be the cool one
Tough luck when niggas are struck, families fucked up
Coulda caught your man, but didn’t look when you bucked up
Mistakes happen, so take heed, never bust up
At the crowd, catch him solo, make the right man bleed
Shorty’s laugh was cold-blooded as he spoke so foul
Only twelve, tryin’ to tell me that he liked my style
Then I rose, wipin’ the blunt’s ash from my clothes
Then froze, only to blow the herb smoke through my nose”
“One Time 4 Your Mind”
“I did that in the studio right on the spot. Nas was starting to get into his groove. He was like, ‘Yo, I got some more time. Hook something up live.’ That’s why it’s as nonchalant as it is, because it was something extra. It’s not a concentrated joint. It’s just like, ‘Then I send a shorty from the block to the store for Phillies.’ Day to day.” – Large Professor (2012)
“That song, I didn’t give a fuck — it was just, go in there and have fun. I wanted Wiz’s voice on that. Out of everybody around, I thought that he had a voice that can be on a record and come off. I always wanted him to rhyme and shit, and that was my way of pushing him into that shit.” – Nas (1994)
“At the time, we were just listening to the beat, and Nas was like, ‘Come in [the booth] with me and help me with the hook.’ So I get on the mic and say, ‘One time for ya mind, one time…’ And Nas comes in with, ‘Yeah, whatever…’ He just knew how to bounce off of me.” – Grand Wizard (1994)
This is probably the only song that didn’t turn out to be a bonafide classic, but that’s not saying much; according to their creative process, it wasn’t exactly intended to be a game changer. Regardless, even a “throwaway” ended up being an incredibly dope song.
“He was real quiet, but he would bring his whole army. Rest in peace to Drawz, by the way. He just died not too long ago. I remember [Nas] bringing Slate, Wallet Head, basically, all the people he was shouting out. They would be like, ‘Can we go in [the booth] too?’ They just wanted to feel it, you know? It was just funny to watch them all in the booth doing ‘Represent,’ and yelling in the background.” – DJ Premier (2011)
“That was a serious weight, representing Queensbridge. I was honored to do it, because of what Shan and Marley had already done. I just wanted to grab the flag and hold it up as high as ever. I felt like they had already paved the way, and now they needed an unbeatable soldier to hold that flag up high. After the battle with [Boogie Down Productions], you can’t ignore the doubt that people had in my hood. So it was like, I’m here now and I got it, and I’ma hold it down to the death.” – Nas (1994)
The chorus sounds like Nas crammed his entire hood in the booth, and the energy of their anthemic chants is frenetic and palpable. Amidst the cacophony of voices, Nas breaks right through the middle of the huddle to deliver his opening words over a sinister Primo bounce: “Straight up, shit is real // And any day could be your last in the jungle // Get murdered on a humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble.”
“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”
“‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’ is my favorite song of all time. Large Professor is my idol.” – Just Blaze (2015)
“We had an in-store [at Tower Records at Fourth and Broadway], and I’d never been to one. I expected to sign maybe 40 autographs at the most. [..] When I saw the crowd, it really let me know that this is gonna be something. This is not a tape that comes out and they just play it for a little while. When we left, it was kids screaming, crying and chasing the car. It was like ‘N Sync. And this is my first album. It was a mob scene. That’s when I knew. I was like, ‘Yo, this is gonna be all right.’ I looked around, and I was like, ‘This is gonna be all right.'” – Nas (1994)
An early version of this song was on the original demo that Serch was shopping around at labels, and when Russell Simmons claimed “[Nas] sounds like G Rap, and G Rap don’t sell no records,” there was some truth to his statement — Illmatic only sold 60,000 copies in its first week and didn’t go platinum until seven years after its release.
But the Afrocentric Asian (half man, half amazin’) ended the album on a strong note, unleashing a barrage of braggadocious punchlines and metaphors over a classic Michael Jackson sample. In 2017, Harvard poetry professor Elisa New invited Nas to break down “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” for a series titled Poetry in America, and various lines from the song have been sampled nearly 40 times.
“It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail
The mic is contacted, I attract clientele
My mic check is life or death, breathin’ a sniper’s breath
I exhale the yellow smoke of Buddha through righteous steps
Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket linin’
Hit the Earth like a comet invasion
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian: half-man, half-amazin’
‘Cause in my physical I can express through song
Delete stress like Motrin, then extend strong
I drink Moët with Medusa, give her shotguns in Hell
From the spliff that I lift and inhale — it ain’t hard to tell”
The Legacy of Illmatic
When my rap generation started, it was about bringing you inside my apartment. It wasn’t about being a rap star. I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like. What the cops talk like, walk like, think like. What crackheads do — I wanted you to smell it, feel it. It was important to me that I told the story that way, because I thought that it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t.” – Nas (2012)
You can practically smell the piss in the elevator. Blunt smoke trailing through the building lobby. E&J brandy sipped in half-lit stairwells. Police sirens wailing in the distance. There’s a fluidity to his writing style that’s naturally expressive, and it’s a unique combination of Queensbridge vernacular and religious subtexts that truly make him the street’s disciple — his ability to paint visceral inner-city narratives is second-to-none.
You kinda get the feeling he’s been around before, in the way he observes life. His mind is always kind of operating at a very mystical level. The people who are the most respected producers in hip-hop have a certain sense of awe when it comes to him. I have never, in all the 15 years that I’ve been listening to rap, ever heard anybody express something so vividly and perfectly as Nas. He doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It’s so effortless. You listen to his music, you get this mental picture of where he’s coming from. It’s not gratuitously violent or sexist — it’s just real. It’s touching too.” – Faith Newman (1994)
Nas was also unique in his ability to find a genuine middle ground: his rhymes were complex, but not overly technical; he never wholeheartedly committed to either gangsta rap or conscious rap; his music was strongly rooted in the Afrocentric sensibilities prominent in the era preceding him, but he never hesitated to shed light on the crack-infested neighborhoods that he came from. This was the reality he was raised in — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and he spoke on it with an endearing honesty. While navigating the underworld of Queensbridge, Nas always remained steadfast in his optimism, with the confidence of unbridled youth and the wisdom of an old soul.
When I made Illmatic, I was a little kid in Queensbridge trapped in the ghetto. My soul was trapped in the Queensbridge projects.” – Nas (2001)
As you listen to Illmatic, it never seems to leave the confines of the project walls, and you get the sense that Nas could have ended up as just another victim of a broken system designed to keep you trapped. Yet he prevailed, and the story of a kid trying to survive the ghetto became a triumphant tale of self-determinism. Sonically, Illmatic marked a transformative moment in hip-hop that created a timeless golden standard, one that still stands strong almost two-and-a-half decades later. This is the archetype of what rap purists define as the “Golden Age,” but Illmatic is beyond the elitist debate of real hip-hop versus mumble rap.
Illmatic IS hip-hop.