I didn’t really take hip-hop seriously until I heard Illmatic my freshman year of college. I was a casual fan of Eminem — his run from The Slim Shady LP (1999) to The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) to The Eminem Show (2002) to 8 Mile (2002) was truly breathtaking — but he had “retired” the previous year and in 2006, mainstream rap had never been worse. I had pretty much given hip-hop up for dead, deciding it wasn’t worth my time. Well, then I got to college and discovered they were giving us free memberships to use Napster, a now legal Netflix-esque service that lets you stream — and download with DRM — pretty much any song or album you want. Since I never had really given rap a fair shake, I decided to make the most of this new avenue that had opened up for me. For some reason, I immediately sought out Illmatic. I think it might have been the first album I listened to.
When I was a senior in high school we got to use a room in the basement of the oldest building on campus called “the senior room” that only seniors could use. There wasn’t much in there aside from a ping pong table, some old couches and some kind of speaker system with a cable/plug that went into your iPod. Most of the music everyone brought in was pure shit, but one day somebody put on Nas’ song “If I Ruled the World” and I remember thinking, “God damn, that’s not bad.” I remember somebody remarking something like, “Nas just always gives you this like, amazing beat.” (Typical seventeen-year-old analysis.) But I became interested in what Nas had to offer that day, since I wasn’t really familiar with his work.
Well, once I found out I had access to pretty much any song I decided to change that, and I listened to Illmatic over and over my first year of college. I was quite mesmerized by it, and looking back now, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have been, since Illmatic has what every great rap album needs: great production and distinct vocal styling from one of hip-hop’s most skilled MCs. Nas grew up in the famous housing project of Queensbridge in Queens, and by the time he was seventeen he was lending his street-smart raps to Main Source’s classic 1991 debut Breaking Atoms on a track called “Live at the Barbeque.” (The song would later be sampled on “The Genesis,” Illmatic‘s first track.) Though hip-hop began as a New York phenomenon (specifically in the Bronx), west coast rap had scored an early victory with N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was a near-knockout punch that threatened the relevance of east coast rap.
Everything was gangsta this and g-funk that in the early ’90s, but then the Wu-Tang Clan debuted their incredibly spare Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in November 1993, which launched the careers of its many members and re-established the east coast scene as something to be taken seriously. Nas released his debut Illmatic just a few months later in April 1994, and that September, the Notorious B.I.G. released his debut Ready to Die, upgrading east coast rap to the gangsta age in the form of so-called “mafioso rap.” Nas, it should be pointed out, doesn’t consider himself a gangsta rapper, and upon closer inspection, this seems true enough. His street-level narratives and outsized attitude may share a lot in common with his gangsta peers in terms of subject overlap, but his tone and approach are noticeably different.
And as far as the production goes, Illmatic‘s producers are a who’s who of alternative rap and jazz-rap figures such as A Tribe Called Quest‘s Q-Tip, who helms of “One Love.” (It’s a track that, unsurprisingly, could fit on 1993’s Midnight Marauders.) Illmatic actually sounds markedly different the gangsta stuff comin’ straight outta LA — everything sounds wide open and spacious, and I never lose my sense of wonder about it. Unfortunately, Nas never has been able to duplicate what he achieved on his brilliant 39-minute debut. Biggie Smalls — and, a couple of years later, Jay-Z — sort of came along and stole his thunder, but at least we still have this gloriously brief document as proof that Nas was perhaps hip-hop’s greatest prodigy.