April 19, 1994....21 years ago, Hip Hop prophecy was fulfilled. Nasir Jones released his debut album Illmatic and changed music forever. Over the years, much has been written about this project. It's been called the greatest rap album of all time. It's been called Nas' magnum opus. It's also been held against Nas by comparing every subsequent album he's put out since to the first one. It's polarizing.
Many of the lines have been immortalized over the years...quoted, re-quoted, sampled, even tattooed. The verses have been studied. The production was jazzy, raw, simultaneously dark and warm, handled by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor, and L.E.S. The lone guest verse belonged to AZ. Top to bottom, critics hailed this as a classic album and declared Nas to be the second coming of Rakim. I was 7 when it dropped.
Admittedly, I caught on to Illmatic relatively late. Sure, I knew most of the songs and what I didn't know already, I'm sure I heard at least once or twice, but for my friends and I, the 90's belonged to Bad Boy Records and the Ruff Ryders. Sure, Nas was dope but it was more It Was Written than Illmatic that made the argument for him...at least to us. "If I Ruled The World" was fire but we weren't done with Ready To Die yet. Junior Mafia and Lil' Kim and Ma$e were all over the radio and when they were done, DMX and Jay-Z took over. There wasn't any room for Nasir. Fast forward to Stillmatic.
2001 was Nas' artistic rebirth. We already know the story. Jay-Z drops "The Takeover" and The Blueprint and lights a competitive fire, causing Nas to respond with "Ether" and Stillmatic. You can make your argument for who won the battle if you want or which album was better. The most significant result from that time however was how it re-introduced Illmatic into popular conversation and introduced it to some of the kids who were too young at the time it dropped to really appreciate it...myself included.
I have no desire to rank this album or compare it to any other projects by Nas or any other rapper for that matter. None of that matters. Illmatic still gets played regularly to this day and that fact, more than any argument, stands as proof that it really is as great as many people have said it was. Salute to Nas and salute to Illmatic.
For more on Illmatic, check out my piece on iStandard Producers HERE.