Source Material: Nas, Illmatic
Released on April 19, 1994, Illmatic is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made. Its 20th anniversary was commemorated by not only an Illmatic XX reissue package, but also a deluge of essays, Internet news posts and video reminisces with collaborators like DJ Premier, associates like his then-manager MC Serch, and musicians influenced by it, such as Kendrick Lamar. After victory-lap appearances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Real Time with Bill Maher, Nas capped the media frenzy by re-creating Illmatic in its entirety at this year's Coachella festival.
It all amounted to a plethora of footnotes for what is just a modestly slender novella, 10 songs totaling less than 40 minutes. Illmatic's producers included Large Professor (formerly of Main Source), Premier, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. All five men contributed boom-bap beats awash in jazz and soul breaks, from taking a handful of piano notes from Ahmad Jamal's "I Love Music" for "The World Is Yours" to lifting a horn lick from Kool & the Gang's "N.T." for "It Ain't Hard to Tell." They made some of their best work for Illmatic, but the album's lasting power lay in Nas' timeless evocation of a violence-ridden life in Queensbridge. Cut to the timeless opening verse of "N.Y. State of Mind," where Nas describes the chaos of a shootout among rival drug dealers: "I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin."
When The Source magazine, then considered a leading voice in rap journalism, gave the album five stars, other critics and fans debated whether the perfect rating was presumptuous, especially for a relatively unproven 20-year-old kid that appeared on just three songs prior to its release: his 1992 "Halftime" single (from the Zebrahead soundtrack), Main Source's "Live at the BBQ" and MC Serch's "Back to the Grill." The initial sales of Illmatic seemed to confirm the skeptics' suspicions. It opened at No. 12 on the Billboard charts, and then slowly faded from view, failing to launch any hits. Its moderate success was typical of East Coast rap during an era when West Coast acts like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube dominated urban radio.
Later that September, the arrival of the Notorious B.I.G.'s [Ready to Die] seemed to fulfill the expectations Nas could not. It used a baby on the cover, just like Nas used a photo of his adolescent self for Illmatic. (On Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ghostface Killah dissed Biggie for copying Nas as he said, "I don't want n*gg*s sounding like me … on no album!")
But if Illmatic mostly stuck to a boom-bap template, then Ready to Die -- executive produced by Sean "Puffy" Combs -- encompassed a range of then-contemporary rap styles, whether it was the G-funk of "Big Poppa" or the slick R&B choruses of "Juicy" and "One More Chance." Its tastemaker's embrace of sonic diversity led to not only widespread acclaim, but platinum sales and several major radio hits. When The Source held its awards show in early 1995, the major prizes went to Biggie instead of Nas. Some even theorized that Biggie "saved" hip-hop, the presumption being that the heart of hip-hop resides in New York.
Today, we view Illmatic nostalgically because it represents a tide-is-high moment for the doggedly noncommercial, art-for-art's-sake boom-bap years of the early '90s, just before Combs' canny marketing of Ready to Die permanently raised the stakes for how major albums are expected to perform on the charts. Thanks to its peerless reputation, Illmatic eventually sold over 2 million copies. But Nas has quixotically prospered and suffered. He has minted an impressively lengthy career that ranges from 1996's double-platinum It Was Written to 2012's chart-topping Life Is Good. Yet we unfairly judge every new work against Illmatic, complaining that his subsequent songs and musical arrangements don't meet that impossibly high standard. It's as if we want him to stay golden forever.