Rap journalist Oliver Wang denied that Illmatic was a classic twenty years ago. We all have our regrets.
Twenty years later, Nas's masterpiece still stands the test of time
by Oliver Wang
Back in the primordial days of the Internet, even before “WWW” had become a household term, there were message boards. On one of them, alt.rap, I wrote this on 4/20/94:
“Look, [Illmatic] is NOT the second coming…please get off the Source’s jock!!! This is a good album. This is a great album. This is probably the best debut to come out of New York since Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage. BUT, this is not the classic everybody’s been calling… Naw man. Like Criminal Minded or Paid in Full? C’mon.”
A few points:
- Yes, I actually wrote that twenty years ago.
- Yes, I regret that I wrote it. Mostly, I regret that it’s still on the interwebs two decades later.
- Yes, I completely got this one wrong. Wasn’t the first, sure as hell wasn’t the last.
In my defense, I was… Actually, I can’t mount a credible defense. I was young, overly opinionated, and worst of all: a close-minded listener. My initial reaction to Illmatic was that it didn’t sound like I thought it might and I was so self-centered then that I processed that surprise as a shortcoming of the album instead of a product of my narrow expectations. (I probably shouldn’t admit this but I felt the same way about Low End Theory on first listen too: I didn’t get why it was so bass heavy, thus completely missing the point of the album title. I really was a bit of a toy back then.)
The irony is that, of course, Illmatic would eventually become one of my favorite albums ever—and yes, a classic—though that transformation didn’t happen overnight. It’s more like it unfolded in stages, where I gradually became more attuned into its transcendent qualities. Obviously, there’s been much ink spilled over Illmatic’s importance and you don’t need me to build a case for its canonization (least of all since I already gutted my credibility with that 1994 post). However, by way of paying penance for my previous foolishness, and in celebration of the album’s twentieth anniversary (accompanied by the new Illmatic XX release), let me highlight a few qualities that have continued to stand out the most to me (and that I should have caught back then).
First of all, while Nas’s cinematic storytelling on Illmatic is rightfully lauded (especially on “One Love”), what impresses me even more is the sublimity of his flow. When he first broke out, on guest spots like “Live at the BBQ” and “Back to the Grill,” people would talk about his imaginative, bugged-out lines: “kidnap the President’s wife without a plan” or “pointing automatic guns at nuns.” However, more than any single line off the album—and Illmatic has notable quotables for days—it’s Nas’s delivery that continues to be a thing of utter, devastating beauty. This may be too obvious, but come back to how he opens “NY State of Mind,” after telling us he doesn’t know how to start this (yo):
Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’
Musician, inflictin’ composition
Of pain, I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine
Holding an M-16, see with the pen I’m extreme, now
Not only does he cram over fifty syllables in those four bars, but the rhyme scheme is as precise as the imagery is wild. Most rappers would feel triumphant to just get that far, but then Nas races ahead and drops forty bars worth in that opening set of verses, seemingly exhaling everything out in one breath. Those verses instantly clarified the difference between possessing style vs. trying to be stylized (think tongue-twiggety gimmicks or weird tonal inflections, both of which Jay Z was guilty of back then). Every time I listen to “NY State of Mind,” I never failed to be awed, wondering in what fever dream did Nas manifest those lines and the alacrity necessary to corral them. He’s hit that stride again and again throughout his career (most recently on “The Don”), but Nas was nineteen/twenty years old when he penned “NY State of Mind.” Just sit with that for a moment.
His age is actually relevant for the other dimension to Illmatic that continues to haunt me. I probably didn’t start listening to the album again—end to end—until the late ’90s, when I had gotten to the point where I felt the tug of nostalgia towards it (cue: “jiggy era rant”) and what I was struck by in making that return was how deeply nostalgic Illmatic itself is despite it being a debut album by a rapper barely out of his teens. Yet Nas wants to play elder statesman here, dispensing counsel from project benches, mentoring gun-happy QB shorties when he’s not cutting songs literally called “Memory Lane.” No rappers like to be thought of as old, but Nas wants the listener to know that he’s wise beyond his years, dropping that “ancient manifested hip-hop straight off the block.” Then again, it would take a young man’s moxie for Nas to dare sell himself as an old soul, but it’s hard to argue with how convincingly he pulls it off.
Lastly—and this is something that I undoubtedly couldn’t have fully appreciated back in 1994—there is an incredible simplicity and purity to the album with its ten tracks and forty-minute run time. That kind of economy was rare even then, let alone by decade’s end where it seemed like everyone needed to drop a double album (Nas included). Maybe that’s why the two “anniversary” editions—the Platinum Series (2004) and the new XX set—don’t add much to the album’s luster or legacy; their “bonus” material (remixes, unreleased songs) do little to change, let alone improve our impressions of the album or the artist.1
Perhaps the most potent gem slipped into the XX edition is the liner notes’ centerfold photo: Premier, Q-Tip, and Large Professor standing in the studio. There’s a few folks MIA (Pete Rock, AZ, L.E.S.), but the image of those four men says enough for a platoon. An elite handful of hip-hop’s greatest talents got together and created themselves a classic. I was too short-sighted to properly perceive that accomplishment in ’94, but I’ve spent the last twenty years, and probably will spend the next twenty years, gazing into that brilliance.
Oliver Wang still writes silly things on the Internet, usually for his site, Soul-Sides.com.
1. This isn’t to say the bonus material is unwelcome. The XX edition includes the demo song, “I’m a Villain,” which is a compelling snapshot of Nas back when he was only seventeen. It’s a pity there’s not more vault recoveries like this (see Mobb Deep’s incredible bonus disc from The Infamous Mobb Deep for a comparison), though for more casual Nas fans who had never heard Large Professor’s excellent, Biz Markie–laced remix of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” or Q-Tip’s flip on “The World Is Yours,” the second disc saves them the trouble of hunting these down off of 12-inch.
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