Twenty years ago, Nas’ magnum opus Illmatic was released. From that point the Queens rapper would embark on an iconic Hip Hop career paralleling few. When it comes to the illusive term “iconic Hip-Hop careers” few names can be thrown in the gauntlet and the reasons vary.
Some are considered iconic due to their short-lived career as a consequence of death. Others because of their longevity and ability to transform from trench fighters to generals. In Nas’ case, the rapper managed to grow beyond Hip Hop and Pop culture’s creation of the war between East Coast and West Coast. In fact, he survived it. Twelve albums and 25 million records sold in twenty years is a phrase that could only have been dreamt of in 1994.
Illmatic is a genre darling. For its music, yes, but mostly because the American Hip Hop Dream is encapsulated in this one debut. It’s a real life parable of an unknown stepping up to the beats of reputable producers like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip to not only slay them but make one cohesive body of work.
In spite of its critical success (yes, the 5-mic rating from The Source will always be mentioned) it managed to stay under the radar. Despite that 5-mic rating, at the 2nd annual Source awards Illmatic lost the Album of the Year award to Biggie’s Ready To Die. The Roots’ Questlove colorfully described that night in his memoir, Mo' Meta Blues, “...for every award Biggie got I watched Nas just wilt in defeat, and that killed me inside. There was a look of shame and defeat. I remember turning to Tariq and saying, ‘He’s never going to be the same. You just watch.’”
A "sign of the times" of when the album was released is apparent while digging into archives to pull out first reviews. They aren’t easy to find. While the album was a seminal powder keg to the revival of East Coast Rap, it wasn’t even reviewed by the New York Times, and Rolling Stone waited until August of that year to enlist music journalist Touré to write a review that interpolated other Hip Hop albums in addition to Illmatic.
The critical acclaim in 1994 pales in comparison to what began to happen upon the album’s 10-year anniversary. It’s been a decade of re-issues, documentaries, and editorials from publications like the Chicago Tribune, Pitchfork and The Village Voice, which named Illmatic the Most NYC Album Ever. Taking Nas’ trajectory and the now apparent legacy of Illmatic, it’s not even halftime.
“...to assume that the ghetto in him — Queensbridge projects, Queens, N.Y. — makes him great is to get way too wrapped up in hip-hop's realness debate. No matter how rough you had it and how authentically you portray it, it'll be MC skills — the distinctiveness of your voice, the adeptness of your rhythm and flow, the quality of your lyrics — that will ultimately determine if you move the crowd.” - Rolling Stone
“The bottom line is this: even if the album doesn’t speak to you on that personal level, the music itself is still well worth the money. If you can’t at least appreciate the value of Nas’ poetical realism, then you best get yourself out of hip-hop.” - The Source
“Nas feels ‘blessed’ to have reached age 20, but he portrays this bleak life honestly and with lyrical finesse - and without bashing women - unlike many so-called gangstas' shock-for-sales rantings.” - USA Today
“Nas promises to do for Queens, N.Y., what Naughty by Nature did for East Orange, N.J., and Snoop did for Long Beach, Calif. His witty lyrics and gruffly gratifying beats on ‘Illmatic’ draw listeners into the borough's lifestyle with poetic efficiency.” - Entertainment Weekly