The summer and fall of 2001 were tremendously exciting times to be a young rap nerd. Jay-Z and Nas were throwing lyrical haymakers at each other, scrambling for the upper hand, using every possible weapon at their disposal to wreck each other. Rap had had plenty of storied rivalries, of course, but we’d never heard two commercial, artistic titans going for blood like that, getting unrelentingly personal with every line. Nas talked about Jay’s “dick sucking lips” and “whiskers like a rat.” Jay made explicit reference to fucking Nas’s ex in Nas’s car. Only one thing was off-limits, and that one thing was Illmatic. That’s the one hot album in Jay’s “one hot album every ten year average” line from “The Takeover,” and you can even hear a bit of awe creep into his voice when he pronounces the album’s title. Talking about the Nas sample on his own “Dead Presidents,” Jay famously says, “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song,” but at least he acknowledges that it was a hot line, you know? In fact, Illmatic sits there underneath everything Jay says on “The Takeover.” He couldn’t just say you’re garbage. He had to say look at all this enormous power and potential you had when you started; isn’t it too bad that you’re garbage now? Because what could Jay possibly say about Illmatic? It was, and is, untouchable — as perfect a piece of deep-in-its-own-head New York rap as we’re ever likely to hear. Some perspective here: Illmatic was only seven years old when Jay and Nas were having their back-and-forth. Seven years is nothing. Can you imagine someone coming at Kanye West’s head now but acknowledging, along the way, that at least Graduation was amazing? It would never happen. But Illmatic was canonized, justly, basically the instant it arrived. It’s an albatross for Nas, and for rap, and for everyone who likes thinking about rap. Because if an album like that was once possible, why can’t anyone make it now?
As a critic, writing about Illmatic is intimidating because it’s a rap equivalent to Exile On Main Street or Revolver. It’s such a universally praised classic, a piece of work with an overwhelming reputation, that there’s nothing new that could possibly be said about it. Books have been written. Every halfway worthwhile critic weighed in years ago. In the wake of Illmatic, it’s hard to figure how to understand the totality of Nas’s career. He’s never come close to equaling that album, and I’m pretty sure that, on some level, he knows it. Nas has been responsible for plenty of amazing music in the past years (when was the last time you listened to this?), but the word “Illmatic” will probably still appear on his tombstone. Whenever Nas puts out new music, it’s impossible not to judge it in the context of his first album, and there’s a simultaneous temptation to dismiss and overpraise everything he makes because of it. I’ve been a published music critic for 13 years, and it’s been my sole source of income for the past nine, but nothing I’ve ever written has ever pissed people off like this. And the piece I wrote didn’t even mention Nas! It’s just the headline — an inside joke I had with some friends — that set people after my neck. (The comments section has somehow been deleted over the years, but trust me, it was ugly.) That’s the Illmatic effect: It heightens every conversation.
Have you ever sat and listened to Led Zeppelin II or Appetite For Destruction and wondered how actual human beings put those songs together? What epiphanies went down so that this one amazing riff could careen into this other amazing riff? That’s Illmatic. On “N.Y. State Of Mind,” before he starts his first verse, we hear Nas — 19 or 20 when he recorded the thing — mutter, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then: “Rappers, I monkey-flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kicking / Musician, inflicting composition.” He did know how to start this shit. I don’t know if Nas was mad about Jay making a hot song out of his hot line, but he shouldn’t have been, because he had so many hot lines on Illmatic. In a single verse on “N.Y. State Of Mind,” within the space of one verse, he gives us “Never put me in your box if the shit eat tapes” and “I never sleep cuz sleep is the cousin of death.” Within seconds of each other. Those are instantly iconic, career-defining lines, and you don’t have time to recover from one before the next arrives. He delivers lines like that with such unflappable cool, never betraying the slightest hint that he’s amazed by the shit coming out of his mouth, never falling out of the beat’s pocket, never leaving his heavy-lidded trance state. Illmatic isn’t one of those rap albums that made its mark by coloring outside the lines and changing people’s conception of what rap was; it’s not Nation Of Millions or 3 Feet High And Rising or Stankonia. Instead, it’s a case of a superlative stylist taking a previously-established sound and doing it extremely fucking well, so well that nobody ever managed to equal it on a pure-fundamentals level.
It’s also one of those albums where everything just came together, where enough talented people had a similar enough vision that they could all get together and execute it. The album has the greatest-possible assemblage of production talent at a point where the production pool in New York was at its most fertile, all doing some of the best work of their lives: Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, the then-unknown L.E.S. All of them understand the album’s immersive deep-groove vibe, and all of them ease into it with complete assurance. The basslines alone are worthy of essays: The plummy stand-up lope on “Halftime,” the forbidding slow-motion strut on “N.Y. State Of Mind,” the loopy wobble on “One Time 4 Your Mind.” Nas is young enough to attack those tracks with a deceptive sort of energy, but his voice has that husky weariness to it, and he doesn’t spend much time dating himself with topical references or nods to rap-delivery trends. (On Ready To Die, released a few months later, Biggie is much more concerned with reflecting his moment, and that might be why Ready To Die did way better commercially but Illmatic enjoys a slightly more vaunted reputation today.) The album is famously short — just under 40 minutes — and it does everything it could ever need to do in that time without ever diluting things with a single ill-considered musical move.
On that “Takeover” verse, in attempting to damn Nas, Jay-Z illuminated one of the reasons Illmatic endures the way it does: “Nigga, you ain’t live it / You witnessed it from your folks’ pad / You scribbled in your notepad and created your life.” He’s right. Nas was a deeply thoughtful art kid, a kid who took in the things happening around him and then let his imagination go to work for him. And while he did grow up in the Queensbridge projects with a notorious knucklehead for a brother, he’s also the son of jazz great Olu Dara (whose haunted horn solo on “Life’s A Bitch” is a quiet but powerful touch). He was exposed to things on his block and things beyond it. And whenever he talks about guns or drug deals, it’s pretty obvious that he’s exaggerating for effect. (He did not, for instance, shoot his way out of his mom’s belly as a fetus.) Long before the rap authenticity debates that would surround Eminem or Rick Ross, Nas was coming up with obvious, agreed-upon fictions that never bothered anyone because he rendered them so beautifully. Illmatic is a conscious-rap holy text, but Nas rarely gets explicitly political on it, and he never once utters the phrase “real hip-hop,” thank fuck. Some of the album’s most powerful moments are the simple, quiet bits where he describes a scene: “Watch a flick, illin’, and root for the villain.” Even some of his most memorable boasts are evocative because they’re so everyday: “The type of nigga who be pissing in ya elevator.” He takes a Queensbridge landscape and describes it in high Queensbridge-rap style, making it more concrete than any of his predecessors or successors would quite manage.
So Illmatic is a near-perfect piece of work. But is it an influential one? And if it is, is its influence a good thing? I’m not sure. It’s an important part of the wave of New York rap that finally stomped out any trace of cartoonish funkiness, replacing it instead with tough greyscale realism. And it cut a path for plenty more deep-focus inward rappers, though it also set an unrealistic standard for all of them to follow, including Nas himself. The album immediately earned tons of acclaim from critics and peers, but it didn’t really sell, only going platinum seven years later. Nas’s own mad and desperate chase for commercial success came to define about a decade of his career, and he never quite figured out what he was doing there. In ?uestlove’s book, there’s a great story about watching Nas, in real time, realizing that he’d lost his anointed-one status to Biggie Smalls, slowly shrinking in his seat as Biggie accepted Source Award after Source Award. Nas is touring the album now, rapping it in full every night, and that feels almost like a capitulation, like he’s finally realized it’s his artistic high-water mark. And the album has also come to define rap’s ideal sonic landscape for too many rap devotees — to the point where plenty of people seem to reject new and exciting rappers out-of-hand for the crime of not sounding enough like Nas on Illmatic. That early-’90s New York boom-bap sound, when done as well as it could be done, was capable of vast, enormous, life-changing things, and that’s what Illmatic taught us. But it also had limits, and it can’t make up the totality of rap itself. And sometimes, rap is at its absolute best when it stops worrying about Illmatic, when it does something completely different. That’s what the last 20 years have taught us.