Illmatic still relevant after 20 years

By Justin Loring
On April 25, 2014

On April 19, 1994, at the age of 21, Nas released his debut album Illmatic. Now, 20 years later, the album remains just as influential as it was when it was released. The critically acclaimed masterpiece tackles many themes: gang life, death, drug abuse and religion, to name a few. His narrative style combined with deep story-telling lyrics and rhythmic beats exemplifies life in Queensbridge, New York. 

At the time of its release, Illmatic sold 59,000 copies in the first week. After the release of the 20th Anniversary edition, album sales rose 844 percent (1,500 sold last week to 14,987 sold this week) reaching over 1.5 million copies total.

The album opens on the track The Genesis, a reference to the first book in the Bible. The 1 minute, 45-second track uses a sample of the 1983 hip hop film Wild Style, showing the culture of the streets and hip hop at the time.

N.Y. State of Mind is the most influential track on the album, with an instantly recognizable beat and legendary hook. I never sleep/'cuz sleep is the cousin of death may be the most popular and well-known line in the history of rap. The song touches on all the major themes of drug dealing, gang violence ("Hand me a nine and I'll defeat foes") and difficulty of life on the streets ("Life is parallel to hell but I must maintain"). Ending with "Nothing's equivalent to the New York state of mind" shows that despite the struggles, he wouldn't change his lifestyle.

Memory Lane (Sittin' in Da Park) serves as homage to those he's lost in his neighborhood, but also reflecting on positive memories. Using multisyllabic compounded rhymes - rhymes with two or more syllables in a single line - like "Grew up in trife life, the times of white lines/The hype pipes, murderous nighttimes and knife fights invite crimes," Nas delivers a story of loss and violence. 

Nas starts the song Represent with the line "Any day could be your last in the jungle/Getting murdered for a humble," referencing how easily someone can be killed over a minor offense. The last line of the second verse,"Now I'm into fat chains, sex and tecs/Fly new chicks and new kicks, Heine's and Beck's," epitomizes the culture of what rappers hold true even to this day. 

At 39:51, the album is very short but packs a powerful message. Nas' beats and hooks have been used by countless other artists, with entire songs being written off of single lines (Ex: Strike Back by Army of Pharaohs). His rhythmic style and story-driven lyrics influenced a new wave of artists and influenced artists like Kendrick Lamar and Curren$y. After 20 years, Illmatic remains immortal and will forever have a place in the Parthenon of Rap.


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