Spotlight: Nas – Illmatic

20 years young and still one of rap's greatest...

Ahead of something rather more substantial on Nas and his amazing debut album ‘Illmatic’ (you’re gonna have to wait until issue 94 for that, mind), here’s a Spotlight feature on the record that launched a young guy from Queens, New York into the boomboxes of rap fans the world over.

‘Illmatic’ turns 20 next month, and to mark the anniversary the album’s reissued as a special XX edition – full details of that, here

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Reeking of youthful bravado – “I wear chains that excite the Feds” – and visualising a glamour life seen as an achievable hustle away from his current existence, a step up he would go on to achieve and brag about pretty mercilessly, Nasty Nasir Jones was rhyming how he lived it.

Sketching out the sartorial street model of suede Timberlands and army fatigues, ‘Illmatic’ elected hip-hop’s poet laureate for urban decay, with the street corner being both his amphitheatre and playground.

Between not giving a f*ck and having the mental strength to survive, an unmatched rhyme control would “decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace” before representing “The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator / The type of n*gga who be pissin’ in your elevator”. Though the godsend of a flow initially didn’t translate into shifted sales units, Nas effectively became the foremost tourist guide for the Queensbridge projects, ‘Illmatic’ vaulting East Coast realism back into the realm of hot property.

With a slew of local street masterpieces to follow from peers and neighbours, and with Biggie’s ‘Ready To Die’ nailing down the East later that year, Nas signified the QBC’s official reintegration into rap geography and lexicon: no longer just an NY locale that the first wave of emcees happened to call home.

The production line-up can be described as audacious. Studio red carpet was rolled out for a raw talent packing an incisive bluntness (“my pen rides the paper, it even has blinkers”), powering off spots of lyrical and conceptual intricacy (‘One Love’ pens updates to locked up friends, over a beat latterly remoulded for Redman, The Herbaliser and Amy Winehouse). ‘Illmatic’ locked a buzz that had generated since Nas pulled up a plate to Main Source’s ‘Live At The Barbeque’, flipping out ears to be touted as Rakim’s heir apparent from under the wing of 3rd Bass’ MC Serch.

DJ Premier, LES, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip gravitated to the hype just into his 20s, all wanting to work with the new kid on the block rather than a backing team being picked by chequebook.

It’s easy to forget how smoothly the album is able to emerge from the ruggedness; loose funk setting up an East Coast alternative to the gangsta rap/G-funk whine that showed how life could be lead on a knife’s edge, yet with comfort to be found at the sharp end, mainly by letting weed smoke cloud judgements. ‘Life’s A Bitch’ is a lazy life-is-good cruise, and ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ applies a gloss made good by Michael Jackson and SWV.

Now ripe for repackaging and bolstering, ‘Illmatic’ is an undeniably, cockily slim album of 10 tracks (one of them an intro), shooting the gift within a single side of a TDK. It gives the impression that to tap into the magic was to simply catch Nas on a good day in his diary, even though the recording process was a greater span of the early 1990s. His best is of a mythical status that means he can perform the album in its entirety at somewhere like Coachella, after similar showcases at South By Southwest and Rock The Bells, and can be afforded its own documentary, Time Is Illmatic.

‘Illmatic’ has also invoked the archetypal axis of being a gift and curse to Nas’ career ever since; proceeding to play the thug preferring the feel of a fur coat, and never reaching comparable full-length success despite repeatedly hinting at redemption ever since.

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‘The World Is Yours’

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Words: Matt Oliver

‘Illmatic XX’ is released on April 14. Find Nas online here

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