Hip-Hop

Nas, 'Illmatic' At 20: Classic Track-by-Track Review

Nas Illmatic album cover

There are few artists in hip-hop who have ever truly matched their hype. Twenty years ago today, on April 19, 1994, Nasir "Nas" Jones became one of them. On that day he released his highly-anticipated debut album, "Illmatic." And while the project didn't initially sell well, the 20-year-old Queensbridge native's music made an impact with the right crowd; namely, die-hard rap fans, industry insiders and most importantly, his peers. It was difficult to listen to the album for the first time and not be blown away. Escobar season was about to begin.

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Nas' story actually begins a few years prior, in 1991, when he appeared on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque," a posse cut that saw him catch people by surprise with shock-inducing lines like, "When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin' Jesus." In its wake, 3rd Bass member MC Serch signed Nas— who originally dubbed himself Nasty Nas— to a publishing deal and went to work on trying to land him a record contract. He brought him to Def Jam, but Russell Simmons thought Nas sounded too much like Kool G Rap, and passed on signing him. The next stop was Columbia Records (at the time CBS), where A&R Faith Newman-Orbach leapt at the opportunity to bring him on board.

In 1992, work began on what would become Nas' debut. The first song released was "Halftime," which appeared on the soundtrack to the movie "Zebrahead." Though it wasn't a huge hit, along with a guest verse on Serch's "Back to the Grill Again," Nas' buzz grew bigger. Another two years was spent in the studio with some of the biggest producers in hip-hop at the time— Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip— looking to capture a sound that spoke to the sensibilities of the average New York kid, staring out his housing project window. After a bootleg version made its way onto the street, Columbia rushed to package the album and put it out; That wound up being the project's saving grace. Capped at ten songs, each track is perfect in its own unique way, and no two sound alike. Without even knowing it, Nas made the greatest rap album of all time.