The Game Ain’t the Same: Nas’ Illmatic at 30

On this day in 1994, the New York MC released a conscious debut that cut through the noise of socioeconomic inequality, gang violence and the emotional turmoil with pensive verses, stellar flow and a blueprint for brilliance. It also endures as one of the greatest albums of all time across all genres.

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The Game Ain’t the Same: Nas’ Illmatic at 30

Throughout the year, Paste will be looking at the most important album releases from 1994 as they turn 30, from Portishead to Tom Petty to Pavement and beyond. This is 1994, She’s in Your Bones, a column of essays dedicated to one of the best years in rock ‘n’ roll history. Read our previous installments, on Hole’s Live Through This and Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers.

It’s a full manifestation that some of the best hip-hop records come from the genre’s place of birth—New York City. A city comprised of movers and shakers, rappers and hip-hop artists have long captured the city’s magic, while detailing the ever-present struggles of making it in the city. On Nas’ debut album Illmatic—which turns 30 today—the then-20-year-old, promising newcomer introduces himself as a tenacious go-getter with a hunger for more. Amid socioeconomic inequality, gang violence and the emotional turmoil that accompanies these phenomena in Black communities, Nas was on a mission to make it. Upon its arrival, Illmatic became the motivation the world needed then, and endures as what it needs now.

The early 1990s delivered some of the best East Coast hip-hop albums of all time—including Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die. But as a fresh newcomer, Nas—hailing from New York’s Queensbridge neighborhood, a launching pad for the likes of Marly Marl and Roxanne Shante—was determined to prove he could sit among the greats. In 1992, two years before em>Illmatic’s release, Nas’ brother and best friend were shot—the former survived, but the latter passed away. When he spoke with Time in a 1994 interview, Nas described the moment as a “wake-up call.”

On “Life’s A Bitch,” a standout from Illmatic—which has gone on to be one of Nas’ universal songs—he ponders his mortality having moved through the wreckage of Queensbridge, and he uses this as motivation to keep his pen to the paper and his foot on the gas. An empowering opening verse and chorus by AZ—“Life’s a bitch and then you die / That’s why we get high / ‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go”—paired with a cornet solo by Nas’ father, jazz musician Olu Dara, make the song a powerful community affair.

Over the course of Nas’ career, “Life’s A Bitch” has served as the foundation to many of his projects, including the song “Affirmative Action” from his 1996 follow-up It Was Written—“Life’s a bitch, but God forbid the bitch divorce me,” he rapped 28 years ago. His 2012 album, Life Is Good, which was largely inspired by his divorce from singer Kelis, features a well-decorated Nas celebrating the accomplishments he had been striving to attain 18 years prior and more. “Success is my three-year-old son having full-on conversations with me,” Nas said in a 2012 interview with Billboard. “This is coming from the guy that first told you ‘life’s a bitch.’ I just enjoy life now. I just enjoy every morning I get to wake up.”

From the beginning, Nas had the zeal to accomplish what he put his mind to. The Scarface-inspired “The World Is Yours” features Nas laying the groundwork for his future as a GOAT in hip-hop, and a mission to give back to the community that brought him up. On the song’s chorus, Nas and Pete Rock continue to ask “Whose world is this?” repeating “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine” in call-and-response fashion over a hopeful, jazzy track. According to Rock, he and Nas—alongside DJ Premier—cut the song upon their first meeting. In a 2014 interview with XXL, Rock recalled how the song came together after the artists were able to match each other’s energy in the studio: “We were in my basement,” he said. “Large Professor had brought him over. That’s when I actually first met Nas, when Large brought him up to Mount Vernon. We went through beats and stumbled across that one. It wasn’t like I made it then. It was already made, so I just popped the disc in, and he was like, “Yo!” Next thing you know, we in Battery Studios knocking it down. When I was doing the scratches, Preemo was there. He was just standing there, looking in amazement, and I was like, “Come on…You that dude, too.”

On one of the album’s more personal tracks, “One Love,” Nas writes letters to his incarcerated friends, filling them in on events that have taken place while they’ve been locked up. But Nas maintains his loyalty to those who helped him in rough times, and promises to hold the community down for them until they come home. “I gave your mom dukes loot for kicks, plus sent ya flicks / Your brother’s buck whilin’ and four Maine, he wrote me / He might beat his case, ’til he come home I play it low key,” he raps on one of the song’s verses. At the time, the topic of mass incarceration of Black men was receiving much media coverage, and would be fueled further with the passing of Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Other songs, including Michael Jackson’s 1995 hit “They Don’t Care About Us,” would also bring this issue to light.

But by touching on such issues, Nas set himself apart by saying what needed to be said. A review by USA Today lauded Nas for “portraying this bleak life honestly and with lyrical finesse—and without bashing women—unlike many so-called gangstas’ shock-for-sales rantings.” Upon its release, Illmatic was widely-acclaimed. It received the coveted five mics rating from the NYC-based rap publication The Source, which signifies an instant hip-hop classic. 30 years after the fact, this seems to be the general consensus—however, the rating proved controversial at the time. Two years prior, Dr. Dre released The Chronic, which, despite its impact on West Coast hip-hop and within the mainstream musical landscape, failed to earn those coveted five mics. Needless to say, West Coast critics were biased. Heidi Siegmund of The Los Angeles Times called Illmatic “an obvious attempt to wrestle hip-hop away from the West” and told readers “don’t believe the hype” surrounding the album.

Reginald Dennis, founder of XXL, who worked for The Source at the time of Illmatic’s release knew the five-mic rating would be polarizing, but has since said that he has no regrets about issuing the honor. Illmatic has shown to be Nas’ quintessential record, but some hip-hop lovers have suggested that none of his subsequent albums have matched the caliber of his debut. Despite the well-reception of much of Nas’ body of work, some critics have suggested that by peaking too early, Nas’ Illmatic was equally a hindrance as much as it was a cultural cornerstone.

In a 2004 essay for PopMatters, critic Marc Lamont Hill said that “while the critical success of Illmatic has helped Nas’s career immeasurably, it has also been his greatest enemy”—noting that “no one, not even Nas himself, can duplicate the brilliance of the greatest album of all time.” Through the late ‘90s and early aughts, Nas was in a widely publicized beef with fellow New York rapper Jay-Z, who also suggested on his 2001 diss track, “Takeover” that Nas couldn’t live up to the success and acclaim of Illmatic. “Four albums in 10 years?… I can divide / That’s one every let’s say two, two of them shits was due / One was nah, the other was “Illmatic” / That’s a one hot album every 10-year average,” rapped Jay.

Nas would later respond with the scathing diss track “Ether,” which appeared on Illmatic’s 2001 sequel album, Stillmatic. The latter was met with similar acclaim to Illmatic, however, “Ether” continues to be the standout track, most notably in discussions of great, all-time diss tracks. Illmatic, too, continues to inform modern hip-hop. The live instrumentation and jazz sounds of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly can easily be traced back to Nas’ debut—and artists like Chance The Rapper, Vince Staples, J. Cole and Rapsody are clear students of the New Yorker’s conscious craft.

With 17 albums to his credit, Nas often revisits the themes of Illmatic. His 2018 album Nasir touches on systemic racism and police brutality, most prominently with the song “Cops Shot The Kid.” On his 2020 album King’s Disease, which arrived amid widely publicized cases of police brutality, Nas takes to the song “Ultra Black”—standing 10 toes down in his identity—saying, “We goin’ ultra black / Unapologetically black / The opposite of Doja Cat.” His latest album, Magic 3 features the standout cut, “Superhero Status,” on which he expresses the want to see his loved ones thrive, like he did on 1994’s “One Love.” “Some of the hardest rappers get overlooked and ignored / No matter what happen, I hope all of us soar,” he raps.

30 years after its release, the stories of Illmatic have held up well. The album spawned a young MC ready to defy the odds through thought-provoking rhymes and striking lines. The focus on contemporary inner-city issues, paired with well-composed instrumentation and delivered with zeal and gusto, has cemented Illmatic as one of the greatest albums of all time, across all genres. And, with more than three decades in the game, Nas has become the face of conscious rap. Though controversies—including widely publicized beefs with Jay-Z and 50 Cent, abuse allegations by ex-wife Kelis—may shatter the “conscious” illusion, the lyrical themes of Illmatic continue to prove both timely and timeless.

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