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.
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.
An album’s introduction, if executed properly, should set the tone for what listeners are about to hear. Few artists pull this off. On “The Genesis,” Nas cleverly pulls dialogue pulled from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 classic “Wildstyle.” In the movie, “Zoro,” the main character, returns home and finds his brother disapproving of him doing graffiti. “Stop fucking around and be a man,” he tells him. “There ain’t nothing out here for you.” “Oh yes, there is,” Zoro shoots back. “This.” And with that, a lo-fi cut of the “Subway Theme” from “Wildstyle” kicks in, and we’re off. “When it’s real, you’re doing this even without a record contract,” Nas tells A.Z. Guns are waved. Hennessy gets passed around. Dreams are spoken of. “Illmatic” begins.
“N.Y. State of Mind”
“Straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap/ Where fake ni–as don’t make it back.” There are few opening salvos in rap history that are more iconic than that. Then, over a haunting piano chop of DJ Joe Chambers “Mind Rain,” courtesy of DJ Premier, Nas waxes poetic for nearly five minutes. On verse one he’s a street soldier, selling drugs to make ends meet, but has to deal with the dangers that come along with that lifestyle. On verse two, he expands on that narrative, and imagines himself moving past the street life. Now he’s Don Corleone of sorts, a kingpin watching over his dynasty. He quickly snaps out of it, though, acknowledging: “But just a ni–a, walking with his finger on the trigger/ Make enough figures, until my pockets get bigger.” This was Nas, summarizing the mentality of a kid forced to hustle, with dreams of doing bigger things. And yet no matter, he’s still stuck there on the block.
“Life’s A Bitch”
Producer L.E.S. loops up a portion of The Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love,” and gives Nas and A.Z. a somber backdrop for rapping about their hopes and dreams. “I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it,” A.Z. spits in the opening verse. The refrain is even more prescient— “Life’s a bitch and then you die/ That’s why we get high/ ‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go” — saying here are two guys living in some terrible circumstances, but still trying to make sure they enjoy themselves while they’re alive. Nas is a mere 20-years-old, but is already showing that he’s ready to grow up. “I switched my motto, instead of saying fuck tomorrow/ That buck that bought a bottle, could have struck the lotto,” he rhymes.
“The World Is Yours”
Is there a more important song in the history of hip-hop than “The World Is Yours?” That’s debatable. The song and video pays homage to Scarface— way before it became trendy— and finds Nas pushing hip-hop’s political agenda completely to the side. The era of rap republicans begins here. “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me,” Nas quips, over Peter Rock’s jazzy backdrop, imploring an entire generation to go out and get theirs.
The important thing to note about “Halftime” is that it’s reportedly the song that got Nas his deal at Columbia, by being included on the “Zebrahead” soundtrack. So without it, there is no “Illmatic.” Perhaps the only bad thing about the song is that by the time the album dropped, its sound— the bassline, courtesy of the AKAI S950’s iconic resonant filter (which defined an entire era in rap production)— was somewhat dated. That didn’t take much away, though. Nas still spits his aggressive battle rhymes over Large Professor’s classic horn-heavy production.
“Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park”)
Songs that reminisced about the good ol’ days were slowly becoming a standard in rap in the early 90s, but few artists were able to pull it off as well as Nas did here. Hearing Nas spit (“It’s real, grew up in trife life, the times of white lines/ The hype pipes, murderous night times and knife fights invite crimes”) you almost felt like you were sitting there with him on the park bench. He was an old soul, telling you stories about how things used to be.
On a letter to Nas’ friends who are incarcerated, he informs them of what’s going on (“But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?/ Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach”) and gives them encouragement (“Dear Born, you’ll be out soon, stay strong”). Elsewhere, Q-Tip, who produced the cut, recites the words “One love,” a loop from the The Heath Brothers’ “Smilin’ Billy Suite Pt. II” repeats.
“One Time 4 Your Mind”
Things slow down exponentially on “One Time 4 Your Mind,” which was presumably a cut aimed at garnering some attention on the West Coast and in the Southeast part of the United States. It’s bottom-heavy bass and straightforward percussive elements are better suited for cars than Walkman’s, and it breaks up the LP’s flow a bit. Many people think this is the one song that could have been left on the cutting room floor. That’s a never-ending debate.
Nas has a way of starting songs. Peep him here: “Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle/ Get murdered on a humble, guns’ll blast, ni–as tumble.” This was the Nasty side of him coming out, a much more aggressive rapper than he’d shown previously on the album; And, rightfully so. “Represent” is the song where he’s staking his claim, letting listeners know that he’s from Queensbridge and he’s not to be fucked with. When it comes to hip-hop, you can’t keep it any realer than that.
“It Ain’t Hard To Tell”
An original version of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” was featured on Nas’ 1991 demo tape as “Nas Will Prevail,” which helped earn him his deal at Columbia. The album version wound up being what the public perceived to be Nas’ first single— remember, “Halftime” was released two years prior— and the song’s smooth Michael Jackson sample proved enough for Nas to pen three remarkable verses that would cement him in listener’s minds for years to come. “Hit the Earth like a comet, invasion/ Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazing,” he spit. Indeed. These type of lyrics— the vocabulary, the flow, the rhythm— Nas delivered them like a poet. And that’s what he was. As “Illmatic” drew to close, it was hard to deny what you’d just heard: A powerful new voice, with the best work he’d ever deliver.