As you've most likely been reminded by copious social medias, it's been 20 years since Nasir Jones released his iconic debut album- ‘Illmatic’. Avoiding the pretentious claims of “changing the world” that precede every mention of the word 'Illmatic', it's 20th birthday seems a fitting opportunity to evaluate what it was about the record that held so many peoples' attention for so long.
1994 was the year of its release, a time when the forefathers of hip hop such as The Beatie Boys, Run DMC, Ice T and LL Cool J were making music to play catch up with a generation of artists leading a renaissance of the genre. It was effectively a transition period; artists who had led the 80s scene were being rapidly overtaken by newer, younger MCs. The year '94 alone saw debuts from the likes of OutKast, The Notorious B.I.G, The Fugees, Coolio, Warren G, Method Man and of course, Nas.
This isn't to say that the older artists were dominated by the new wave of 'Golden Age' lyricists, they continued to produce and sell albums; remaining relevant to the genre even past the millennium. What the new names were doing differently however, were enticing entirely new audiences, and gathering money and scale like never before.
In such a saturated year of heavyweight debuts, it took something fundamentally different, and yet and the same time fundamentally relatable, to be set apart at all from the sheer volume of talent emerging. Nas really stripped himself bare in 'Life's a Bitch', rapping mostly about the struggle rather than the success, which is unusual for a 20 year old and made him seem like a rap veteran rather than a newcomer. However, hip hop had rarely seen this realism in the past, and even though a lot of what Nas was spitting, was in many ways pessimistic, it was relatable, which is what eventually connected his music with so many people.
...I say eventually, because ‘Illmatic’ was by no means an instant success. It charted at number 12 and sales fell below expectations despite receiving praise from most critics. Eventually word spread and two years later it was certified gold, five years after that it was certified platinum.
20 years on and its much harder to see why ‘Illmatic’ is so revered. Although few deny it of praise, some fail to see it's iconic nature. For younger generations, ‘Illmatic’ may seem rather similar to most hip hop tracks; monotonous, dense, even boring. This is because virtually all of todays hip hop, and what we perceive as stereotypical hip hop, has been inspired by and based on the formula created by Nas in ‘Illmatic’. Nas himself once quipped, “Anybody can be a rapper, but not anybody can be a classical artist”. The legacy of ‘Illmatic’ exists not in t-shirt friendly quotations or club-night floor fillers. Jones is responsible for an infrastructure, and he built it out of steel. He created a template, a standard by which artists have since expanded upon, but always at some level, recreated.
Words: Julian Caldwell