How does one change the entire game of Hip-Hop with a single album — a debut album that clocks in at just under 40 minutes at that? For then-20-year-old rapper Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones — we’ve all grown to love and known him simply as Nas — that became a reality that has only developed in the past 25 years since its release. The album of course is Illmatic, released on April 19, 1994, and the lyricism, skill and overall production heard on the LP still sounds just as fresh today as it did back then. Take a trip down memory lane with us as we briefly break down why.
What started out as a soundtrack single off the 1992 film Zebrahead turned into the album’s classic debut cut “Halftime,” produced by Large Professor who would also lend his studio skills on “One Time 4 Your Mind” and the standout “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” Other producers that helped bring this project to life include the album’s executive producer Faith Newman (“The Genesis”), the legend himself DJ Premier (“N.Y. State of Mind”; “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)”; “Represent”), Leshan David Lewis aka L.E.S. (“Life’s a Bitch”), Pete Rock (“The World Is Yours”) and fellow MC Q-Tip (“One Love”).
Although the album only sold 60K units in its first week, landing it at #12 on the Billboard 200 chart, and produced singles that made modest marks on the charts — “Halftime” faired the best with a top ten Hot Rap Singles bow out at #8 — Illmatic made up for it with its near-universal critical acclaim. The review most people tend to remember is of course the classic, sometimes controversial Five-Mic rating that former The Source writer Miss Info gave the project. Whether you think she was right to give his, as she put it, “poetic realism” a perfect rating is up for debate, but seeing as we’re here 25 years later lamenting about the LP all over again, we still stand by the opinion of our old pal “Shortie.”
Looking back now, it really isn’t hard to tell how influential Illmatic is, was and continues to be within Hip-Hop culture. Since 1994, we’ve seen many follow in the footsteps of Nas’ magnum opus debut, including contemporaries like The Notorious B.I.G. with Ready to Die and Jay-Z with Reasonable Doubt, throughout the 2000s with Food & Liquor by Lupe Fiasco and The Documentary by The Game, or the most recent and possible most profound comparison by way of Kendrick Lamar in 2012 with good kid, m.A.A.d city.
To say Nas has influenced rap music is a huge understatement, and the only way to truly describe how amazing of a talent he is as a lyricist, writer, poet, thinker, visionary and musician overall is to simply listen to Illmatic. It’s just that good.
Happy 25th anniversary to Illmatic! Let us known your favorite tracks by hitting us on Facebook and Twitter, and check out the original five-mic review by Miss Info in Issue #55 (April 1994) below: