From the March 2014 issue of Offbeat … and because, well, I think Nas is a genius:
On April 15, 1994, Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones, a 20–year-old lyricist from New York’s Queensbridge projects, released his debut album, Illmatic. It quickly proved to be a hip-hop game-changer, helping to resurrect a floundering New York rap scene and inspiring decades of complex rhymes about street life. This spring, Nas marks the 20th anniversary of his celebrated album with a Sony Legacy reissue Illmatic XX, a documentary film about Nas and his jazz musician dad Olu Dara, Time is Illmatic, and a tour, which pulls into New Orleans for the BUKU Music + Art Project, March 21 and 22.
Slated to perform Illmatic in its entirety with backing from DJ Premiere, Nas is poised to revisit classics that span his early career, from his breakout “Live at the Barbeque” performance (sampled on “Genesis”) to the script-flipping wordplay of “New York State of Mind,” which turned Billy Joel’s ’70s-era Big Apple nostalgia on its head (“I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”). Since the original album was just 40 minutes long and the reissue comes packed with two discs’ worth of remixes, demos and other previously unreleased material, there’s a chance the set will get a few extras tacked on as well.
“With Illmatic, I didn’t think about it. I just did it. I believe everybody has good instincts. Now I’m a man from that past and I’m supremely grateful,” Nas recently said in a statement on his website. “There’s a Nigerian proverb ‘What is past is prologue. I’m here today because of Illmatic.”
In fact, the wider spectrum of contemporary hip-hop owes a lot to precedents set by Illmatic. Poetic devices such as his intricately wrought internal rhyme gave Nas a trademark flow that inspired contemporaries like Jay Z, as well as next-generation lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco andJay Electronica.
The autobiographical narrative content of Nas’ seminal album set a new bar, too. These were gangster rap-styled stories about urban poverty, gang violence, drugs and street life. But Nas’ perspective came from a conscious rep mentality, as he ruminated on his position as “a kid trapped in the ghetto,” and his plans to write his way out.
When Jay Z released his debut Dead Presidents two years after Illmatic, critics took note of its similar literary approach to a memoir-like depiction of the streets. Jay even sampled Nas on the album’s title track, which borrowed bars from jazz pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, making it sound even more similar to Nas’ “The World is Yours,” which features a nod to Ahmad Jamal.
Illmatic also impacted musical elements of the hip-hop world less explicitly. The now iconic album cover concept of the rapper as a child showed up on subsequent releases from The Notorious B.I.G. (although Ready To Die subbed in a kid who merely resembled Biggie), Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar.
A slew of mixtape tributes to Illmatic have also proliferated in the wake of the original, giving even more weight to his “Stillmatic” line from the track “Ether:” “I am the truest / name one rapper / that I ain’t influenced.”