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. The inherent trouble with such reflections is that without new perspectives, they’re essentially overpriced reminders of the source material. This is where Illmatic XX resides.
Illmatic XX opens with one of Nas’ early demo offerings, “I’m A Villain.” The Jae Supreme-produced track was clearly spawned from the same rhymebook that produced “N.Y. State Of Mind”—and that’s not a bad thing, considering it’s one of the scant few “new” offerings found on this re-release. Nas is in post-“Live At The Barbeque” mode. The bars border on Horrorcore, but aren’t as shocking as the infamous “went to Hell for snuffin’ Jesus” line.
“Full of anger / All about danger / Pullin’ out my banger / Stabbin’ up a stranger,” a young Nas snarls. Between such talk and his threats to catch bodies at block parties, there’s some militant talk (“Rebel, but my country doesn’t want me”). It’s a great insight into the dichotomy of a young Nas—then, clearly influenced by Kool G Rap, but still equally attracted to radical leanings later found on tracks like “Revolutionary Warfare” or the gun-toting machismo of “The Message.”
An appearance by Nas, Jungle, Sudan, 69 and Grand Wizard on The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show provides one of the more candid glimpses into Nas’ career over the past two decades. Likely recorded months before the release of Illmatic, the track features Nas fumbling through a surprisingly rudimentary freestyle:
“Off the top of my head, yo I’m a blunthead / Police, police want a nigga dead / But I’m not going out like that black / I kick the actual facts and solar / Cold as a polar / Bear, I swear…”
It’s certainly not five-mic material, but the nostalgia factor and Nas’ willingness to truly improvise a freestyle on the spot boost the value of this rare inclusion—particularly for listeners outside the Tristate area with no access to WKCR in the early ‘90s.
The trouble with Illmatic XX isn’t what you hear, but what you don’t hear. In a vacuum, it’s an unexpectedly well-preserved snapshot of Golden Era, New York Hip Hop. Sonically, it strikes the perfect balance between cleaning up the original recordings through the advent of digital remastering without eliminating subtleties such as the crackle of a needle over vinyl. But over the past 20 years, Nas fans have either heard or heard about DJ Premier’s alternate versions of “Memory Lane” and “Represent,” as well as the version of “Nas Will Prevail” that ultimately became “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” None of the above is included on Illmatic XX, which amounts to a significant omission on an album that was originally only comprised of nine full songs.
Sadat X’s elongated, hyponasal hook is laid over a bed of dark keys for one of two “One Love” remixes, and Large Pro’s remix of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” (powered by Biz Markie’s infamous vocal sample from “Nobody Beats The Biz) also appear. The likes of Godfather Don, Jae Supreme and Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo provide the requisite stacked SP-1200 kicks, high hats and dark instrumental accents that mark quality Golden Era production. And good as they are, they don’t stack up to what Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor were doing at the time.
The Lost Tapes lived up to its name with by providing tracks that had either been diminished in quality, missing for years or ruined by obscenely loud mixtape DJ drops. Illmatic XX lacks that element, and unlike God’s Stepson, this project is not a reinterpretation either. As long as material from the original Illmatic contributors remains stuck on hard drives and obscure corners of YouTube, projects such as Illmatic XX serve as glorified maxi singles. The remixes provide a nice accent and a reason to give Nas’ old label $14.99. But with only two truly extraordinary, hidden offerings from the original recording sessions, the original version of Illmatic holds up just fine after all these years without the extras.