It Ain’t Hard To Tell: 27 Years Later Nas’ “Illmatic” Still Goated

Nas’ debut album “Illmatic” has no shortage of hip-hop Quotables that still ring prominently more than two decades later. We celebrate the 27th anniversary of the 10-track stick of dynamite that set the hip-hop world on an upward trajectory that it hasn’t descended from since.

“Illmatic” is easily considered one of the Top 5 most influential and innovative rap albums of all-time by hip-hop aficionados, historians and purists.  

The raw, lyrical mastery within the album can be likened to Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie season, when the most dominant force in NBA history averaged 37 points and 27 rebounds per game.

The cultural significance of the album parallels Allen Iverson or Michael Jordan’s rookie season in the way that it transcended the rap game, elevated the genre and set the entire culture of hip-hop on a new course.

It took those guys 70-80 games to introduce themselves to the world but the 20-year-old rapper from Queensbridge needed just under 40 minutes to become a living legend and set the standard for any self-proclaimed rap God, past or present. 

The album was released on April 20th in 1994. It’s largely recognized throughout the world as a project anointed by God himself. An example of the perfect combination of lyrical flow, storytelling, cultural imaging, elite production, timeless expression and rugged ingenuity.  

In addition to Nas’ Donald Goines/James Baldwin/Nat Turner/Superfly/Mafia influenced contextual delivery, the producers that helped bring this project to life include the album’s executive producer Faith Newman (“The Genesis”), the legendary DJ Premier (“N.Y. State of Mind”, “Memory Lane” and “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”).

An album held in such reverence deserves more than a mention on social media or a hip-hop show.

Last year, the album hit the quarter-century mark. Therefore, Certified Classics, Legacy Recordings’ division for the celebration of Sony Music and groundbreaking Hip-Hop and R&B catalog, joined forces with The Pop Up Agency in commemoration of the album’s 25th anniversary. 

“Illmatic XXV: Memory Lane” in NYC was an immersive multimedia pop-up event open from April 19-27 at Sony Square NYC (25 Madison Avenue), a public space committed to showcasing innovations in products, music, movies and gaming. 

The album covered the triumph and tragedy embedded in street life, the drug game and characters of the Queensbridge housing project.  It also highlighted relationships, honor, friendship, incarceration, as well as knowledge of ancestry, the never ending battle between spirituality and savagery, the general struggles of Black America and the overall flamboyance, grace, talent, intelligence and resilience of the African-American male throughout history.

Never before has music, street politics and poetry been so effortlessly and incredibly combined to create an album that so thoroughly dominated rap’s landscape. The spirit of the album spread like wildfire throughout the rap industry and inspired a generation of storytellers who have paved their own way, but credit “Illmatic” as the foundation of their entire Hip-hop mindset.

The album not only garnered props among hip-hop’s street audience, but also earned critical acclaim from publications like The Source Magazine — considered hip-hop’s bible at the time — when Miss Info blessed “Illmatic” with five mics. The decision was controversial back then. It’s beyond obvious now and recognized as one of a select few seismic bombs ever released into the hip-hop atmosphere.

27 years later, as rap has gentrified, diversified and become the No. 1 commercial sound in his world, there are artists such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar who are direct descendants of Nas’ elite lyrical, musical tree. They continue to fight the commercialization of rap by staying true to the socially conscious vision, street dreams and enlightening scripture that Nas made a permanent part of his music.

NOTE: Remarkably, after 30 years in the game, Nas finally won a surprise Best Rap Album Grammy for his latest offering, King’s Disease.

The album, produced by Hit-Boy, captures the sounds of the 90s — those vibes and descriptive stories that made Nas a legend — put the sound in a time capsule and crashed into 2021 with some timely appearances by current stars like Fivio Foreign and Asap Ferg.

The 47-year-old hip-hop savant is probably the oldest rap artist to win this award, which only proves his staying power and true standing as a consistent, enduring, legend of the game.


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