Release Date: Apr 15, 2014
Record label: Columbia
Looking back, Nasir Jones's decision to open his seminal album with a sample from Wild Style - touted as the first hip-hop movie - was both aspirational and prescient. A few minutes later, when Nas mutters, "I don't know how to start this," before breaking into one of the most revered rap records of all time, it sounds like a lightweight humblebrag (it wasn't; he wrote his verse shortly before entering the booth). N.Y.
Two summers ago, I was dragged on a date that included a trip to Governor’s Island. For the unfamiliar, that’s the small island between Brooklyn and Manhattan where the Governor’s Ball is held. It didn’t look like there was much to the community, with its constant quietness, the lack of commercial centers, and just how far removed it was — or at least felt like — from regular NYC hustle.
For the last 20 years, Nas has both run from and back to Illmatic. He’s mocked Golden Era romanticists rhyming, “They thought I’d make another Illmatic, but it’s always forward I’m moving / Never backwards stupid, here’s another classic” on an album whose very title, Stillmatic, incorporated the name of his crowning artistic achievement. Now, two decades removed from his debut, Sony/Columbia offers a re-release of Illmatic.
This review focuses mainly on the original 1994 release of Illmatic, and has been scored accordingly. Illmatic’s original cover art – as well as being considerably subtler than the version above – is iconic now; Nas played with different versions of it for It Was Written, I Am… and Nastradamus, but it’s the original that sticks in the mind, with a faded picture of a young Nasir Jones set against a sepia-toned New York street. The image that best defines the record, though, ended up on the inner sleeve; a black-and-white photograph of Nas, standing in front of what can only reasonably be described as an urban wasteland.
Nas Illmatic XX (Sony Legacy) No rapper has spun the success of a single project quite like Nas has Illmatic, but then no rapper besides him has bottled hip-hop perfection into a cold, calculated 39 minutes. The Demos, Remixes & Live Radio half of Illmatic XX, the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Queensbridge rapper's seminal debut, deviates the right direction from its 10-year predecessor. Rather than straight remixes, Nas delivers alternate takes, demos, and radio freestyles.