By Adam Lovinus
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When Illmatic dropped on April 19, 1994, the debut album from Nas wasn't an immediate commercial success. Two decades later, though, it claims a staying power unrivaled by any other in hip-hop history. On "N.Y. State of Mind," the Joe Chambers sampled bass line off "Mind Rain" creeps up on the gutter boom-bap mastery crafted by DJ Premier. Meanwhile, the Columbia Records rapper commands his gritty tales as the exalted ghetto griot he is. The song sets the tone for the classic album and is as head-nodding today as it was then.
It stands as no surprise a celebratory retrospective edition of Illmatic hit stores Tuesday with remixes and previously unreleased material. The rapper performed cuts from his 20-year-old opus at the Kennedy Center backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. Taking a page from Rock the Bells, Nas performs the album in its entirety this weekend at Coachella.
"It's almost like a heat check for hip-hop, especially when looking back at an album like Illmatic and an artist like Nas," says UC Irvine professor Sohail Daulatzai. "At the time that it was out, it represented almost a kind of authenticity or purity that hadn't existed in hip-hop before it."
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Daulatzai contributed to and co-edited with Michael Eric Dyson 2009's Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic. The book broke the album down track-by-track. The appraisal was rounded out by "freestyle" pieces by eclectic writers at Daulatzai's suggestion, forming what he called "a cipher in book form." It also includes such archival material as The Source's coveted five-mic review of the seminal album.
"When it came to picking the pieces, selfishly, I wanted 'N.Y. State of Mind,'" Daulatzai admits. "While it wasn't one of the singles on the album, it was maybe the most identifiable song on it to most people." The professor, whose latest book is Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America, also teaches a course on hip-hop culture that's billed on the syllabus as "Illmatic, Hip-Hop and America." The track is central to the coursework.
"To me, Illmatic is like a sonic map. It's giving this insight into the housing projects of America—in fact, the largest housing project in America," Daulatzai says, referring to New York's Queensbridge Houses, where Nas grew up.
The song offers clues as to the dichotomy of Illmatic being a classic album that took seven years to go platinum. West Coast was king at the time, with its G-Funk gangsta boasts. Illmatic came on a different tip. "The production style had that classic '90s sound, with jazz samples and piano keys," Daulatzai says. The A-list crew of beat makers assembled included DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip. "Thematically, Nas was a conscious gangster. That's partially what made it refreshing and really interesting, but also made it difficult to market."
Nas enjoyed greater sales figures as his discography continued through the years. But Illmatic stuck as a blessing and a curse. The negative side of its success is that everything the rapper did after would always be compared to it. "It's amazing how people are still talking about Nas disappointing them," Daulatzai says. "Any other rapper who would have put the body of work that he's put out and is still relevant, they'd be hailed as the greatest rapper of all time. But [Nas] won't be because of Illmatic."
The album came at a pivotal moment, as 1994 was the sunset for the golden age of rap. As the intro to Born to Use Mics asks, was Illmatic the beginning of the end or an exclamation point? One thing that's for sure is hip-hop is in transition.
"The comparison of Illmatic to good kid, m.A.A.d city is an appropriate one," Daulatzai says. "Because of where hip-hop is now, there's a way in which good kid, m.A.A.d city stood out as a result. It brought the album back."
It also gave heads something to bump to on the radio dial in between an endless stream of forgettable songs. Will Lamar's contribution to the culture be remembered 20 years later? Only the future knows.