Twenty years later, the debut album from rap virtuoso Nas is still getting attention.

Photo of Illmatic XX
Illmatic XX

Tonight, Nas performs Illmatic in its entirety at the BUKU Music + Arts Festival. It’s one of many stops on a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of his beloved debut album. On April 15, the record will be reissued under the name Illmatic XXalong with a bonus disk that includes rare remixes, demos and freestyles. There’s even a feature-length documentary in the works titled Time is Illmatic, which explores the struggles Nas faced trying to get the attention of record labels, and of course, the making of the legendary album.

It’s not hard to see why Illmatic was initially so popular. 1994, arguably the most important year for hip-hop, saw not only dramatic changes and experimentation within the genre, but the release of classic album after classic album. Wu-Tang Clan dropped the low budget, hard-hitting Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) while Outkast tested the genre with their psychedelic trunk-thumper Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Notorious B.I.G. took the throne as “King of New York” with his first studio release Ready to Die, and the Beastie Boys continued turning heads with the rap-punk fusion Ill Communication. Yet even among these giants, Nas’ debut captured the attention of everyone in the hip-hop community, including West Coast heroes like Tupac Shakur, who blasted Illmatic while walking into the courtroom during one of his trials. Not only has it been cited as the best hip-hop album of ’94, but also as one of the best in the history of the genre. 

The album wasn’t an immediate commercial success, selling only 330,000 copies its first year. Regardless, Illmatic quickly established 20-year-old Nas as a hip-hop prophet. His imaginative, detailed lyrics paint a cold picture of life in the Queensbridge projects, where the youth get high because they don’t know when death might be lurking around the next dirty street corner. Outside of its brilliant lyrics, the album expanded the possibilities and complexities of form, matching jazz and funk samples with gritty production and Wild Style sound bites that suggest a connection to music’s past and a vision of the future. It even challenged the way hip-hop records were made, being one of the first albums to enlist multiple producers, in this case NYC legends DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip.

So what makes Illmatic still relevant? Those who grew up listening to the record still have an emotional attachment to it, but why has the album continued to strike a nerve with teenagers who live in a dramatically different age of hip-hop? Pitchfork takes a stab at the question:

The styles and stories that formed [Nas] fuse into something that withstands outdated slang and popular taste: it is a story of a gifted writer born into squalor, trying to claw his way out of the trap. It's somewhere between The Basketball Diaries and Native Son, but Jim Carroll and Richard Wright couldn't rap like Nas.

In other words, Nas tells a universal story in a language that will forever capture the imagination.

Also, it’s obvious to see how Illmatic has influenced current rappers including Kendrick Lamar, whose sophomore record, good kid, m.A.A.d city mirrors the themes and styles that made Illmatic an epic. Both records take an introspective look back in time, at a youth that was corrupted by everyday exposure to poverty and crime. Both make use of jazz samples mixed with sound bites and gritty production methods which add complexity to its story. Both include wordplay that entertains as effectively as it educates and both records take on a serious but determined tone, where the ghetto inevitably feels like a trap to the artist, but he remains determined to make it out. Even though Nas has aged, the record remains young.

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