Any MC worth his salt cites Nas’ Illmatic as a formative work in his creative life. From the album cover’s aesthetic of his childhood self superimposed onto the streets to the intricate rhyme patterns and thematic stages, Nas created an archetype that steered the destiny of rap and influenced…pretty much everyone.
So what was it about that 1994 release that really impacted the hip-hop community? A hundred people may give a hundred different answers, but patterns emerge as to why this particular album, at this particular time, made such a lasting impression -the lyrical prowess, the epic production and the starkness of its truth make Illmatic a powerful part of this culture’s consciousness.
It has become a cliché in hip-hop to talk about authenticity, and bringing the paradigm of the streets to art through lyrical engagement, but clichés are rooted in truth and Nasty Nas certainly brought the Queensbridge projects into the imaginations of every hip-hop head. Carrying the torch of the pure MC, Nas self-identifies in “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” as fully artist and fully urban: “The buddha monk’s in your trunk, turn the bass up / Not stories by Aesop, place your loot up, parties I shoot up / Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L / School a fool well, you feel it like Braille…” He builds a sparse stage of lyrical structures and mental imagery within which to operate, sharing not only his physical surroundings but melding them with his mental processes and allowing the listener to gain insight in a myriad ways.
Illmatic also reinforces the classical literary theory that ideas are the most palatable when delivered with style – Nas’ concepts and lyricism are backed by the most epic producers in hip-hop, including Q-Tip, DJ Premier and Pete Rock to name a few. Nas was under pressure at the time to hold the lyrical torch, coming after Leaders of the New School, De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Tribe Called Quest – these artists spoke out on social issues while maintaining a level of joyfulness in the art. Nas didn’t back down from this pressure, and brought a flow that was new: hard-hitting street poetry delivered clearly, in an inimitable style. He told crime tales with the smoothest delivery, making a perfect blend of rhyme, style and confidence: Nas told stories of violence without glamorizing them, but relaying them in a way that caused people to listen, and hence to understand. He shared his mind and his world in a way that people of all backgrounds were truly engaged by.
20 years after Illmatic dropped, it continues to anchor the ideas and styles of hip-hop, even if the genre has arguably strayed from stylish street rhymes to vapid ghosts of its ancestral art. All the more reason to catch up on this benchmark work – Nas will be performing the album in its entirely at Squamish Valley Music Festival and giving festival-goers a unique chance to listen, internalize and truly feel the impact of one of hip-hop’s greatest moments.
Tickets for Squamish Festival this weekend are available for single-day & 3-day passes at squamishfestival.com
– Amalia Nickel