Most new releases seem to have a shelf life of two weeks these days, so it’s hard to believe that an album now turning 20 can still be as relevant as ‘Illmatic’, the debut record of iconic Queens, NYC rapper Nas. Catching up with him to talk about what is arguably the most influential hip-hop LP of all time is surreal.
“You were five-years-old when ‘Illmatic’ came out,” he says, coming to terms with what we just told him. “That’s amazing, because when I was five there were no rap albums coming out. At all. There was no such thing as a rap album.”
Tracks over the past few years such as Joey Bada$$’s breakthrough ‘Survival Tactics’, A$AP Nast’s ‘Trillmatic’ and J. Cole’s ‘Let Nas Down’ have all paid homage in some way to Nas’ debut record. The Queens legend attributes the record’s timelessness to its lucid realness and aspirational nature.
“Really, the topics that I talk about were topics that were around before ‘Illmatic’; streets, social economic status, people’s struggles,” he says. “I just told it crazy real, and it just talks about how to live in the circumstances and goes beyond, dreaming at the same time. Never just stay in the situation that you’re in.”
The combination of coming to terms with reality and dreaming of improvement is something relatable to any situation, and the two form a winning combination of the nihilistic realness shared by some of the era’s MCs and the incessant dreaming of others.
“Things go in circles. That’s what happens; rap music comes through different generations and everybody kind of just appreciates everybody. And I guess that at this time that particularly applies to ‘Illmatic’,” says Nas of the revisiting of themes and even reactions that remerge through generations.
Initially considered a controversial MC, he was known for the subversion of religious imagery pre-‘Illmatic’. In the two verses that preceded the album he rapped: “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” (Main Source’s ‘Live At The Barbeque’) and “Waving automatic guns at nuns” (MC Serch’s ‘Back To The Grill Again’).