Today I had one of those realizations: It's been 20 years since Nas dropped "Illmatic."
There are lots of reasons for why Illmatic is such an important album. I would argue that it should be required listening for all high school students in the US. Some of you might smirk at that idea, but it's really an important testament to the kind of creativity that emerges from poverty, racism, and harsh conditions in ghettoes across the world. In this way, we can think of Illmatic like a primer for the uninitiated.
Anyways, here are three reasons why Illmatic is still dope 20 years later (feel free to add your own, too!):
Reason #1: It is a sonic masterpiece. Nas worked with Hip Hop heavyweights like Dj Premier and Q-Tip on this album. The end result is beautiful. There are few Hip Hop albums that I can listen to from beginning to end. I have some die hard friends who only listen to albums this way, but I've never been like that. There are probably only a handful of albums--Hip Hop or otherwise--that can hold my attention from top to bottom. Illmatic is one of them. If you're not familiar (or if you haven't heard it in awhile), take a stroll down memory lane. The album isn't bloated with filler. It's sleek. There are 10 songs, which run for a total of about 40 minutes. You can listen to the entire album in a subway ride. Some folks would later criticize Nas for releasing albums that have a mix of heaters and filler. Illmatic is only heat.
Reason #2: Nas' skills are on full display here. I've talked to so many emcees and heads over the years and there are lots of different ideas about why Nas is so beloved in the Hip Hop community. I'm paraphrasing, but many talk about how Nas is so respected because he perfectly balances storytelling and wordplay--two of the main pillars in the emcee's craft. There are other artists who write better songs and surely others who have a more creative and dense wordplay. But, there aren't many who combine both into a beautiful synergy like Nas. For good examples, check out "One Love" and "Represent." In different ways, both are masterful examples of Nas' rare blend of effortless storytelling and wordplay about life in the Queensbridge Projects. Also, there is a rare kind of maturity in his songs. Nas doesn't glorify violence, drug dealing, and other local issues, but he doesn't skirt them, either.
Reason #3: Finally, we all love Illmatic because it's one hell of a debut. Nas recorded it as a teenager! Is there a better debut by a Hip Hop artist? It takes many years for artists to find and cultivate a unique style. Many go through various growing pains before they find a style that is uniquely their own. I sometimes cringe when I listen to old albums by my favorite artists, but Illmatic seems to stand the test of time. Aside from some of the production sounding dated, Nas' verses and rhymes could still hold up under modern day scrutiny. I'm no emcee, but Nas reminds me of Rakim in this way.
All of this is to say that Illmatic is an important part of Hip Hop's continual evolution and history. It's been fascinating to see Nas and other artists grow into new roles over the years. Much like other pioneers whose influence extends beyond music, Nas has also become a cultural ambassador. Many of you might remember how Harvard University announced the launching of the Nasir Jones Fellowship to support Hip Hop studies in the academy last year. And in addition to a special 20th anniversary album, fillmakers One9 and Erik Parker are releasing a documentary called "Time is Illmatic." The documentary will cover the album and has already opened in some film festivals to resounding applause. I can't wait to see it! Until then, I'll be bumping some more "Illmatic."