Review: Nas – Illmatic
Nas’s Illmatic was released on April 19, 1994. In honor of its 25th anniversary, we’ve digitized and republished our original review, which ran in the August 1994 issue of Spin.
On “The World Is Yours,” from his debut album Illmatic, Nasir “Nas” Jones says twice in a sly, Zen tenor, “I’m out for Presidents to represent me,” and both times a stunned peanut gallery answers, “Say what?” But as producer Pete Rock sets the moody-mood with jazz-piano chords, the 20-year-old rapper from New York’s Queensbridge housing project drops the sneaky-deep punch line: “I’m out for dead Presidents to represent men.” In other words, nobody represents him, and he’s dead set on getting paid figuring out why.
Awaited as intently as the debuts of more cocksure virtuosos Big Daddy Kane and Snoop Doggy Dog, Illmatic pays serious mind to uncertain sources, to abstract anxiety, spiritual and otherwise. Unlike the West Coast gangsta cartoonists (and their reactionary New York progeny, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, and Onyx), Nas searches for an inner calm to break down his left-field-corner crazy streak. And don’t doubt that he’s got one. In past incarnations—cameos on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ” and MC Serch’s “Back to the Grill”—Nasty Nas impulsively swiped the spotlight with talk of “snuffin’ Jesus” and “waving automatic guns at nuns.”
But Illmatic’s guest producers—Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip—don’t exploit Nas’s shock-jock tendencies. Instead, nudging him toward Rakim-like rumination, they offer subdued, slightly downcast beats, which in hip-hop today means jazz, primarily of the ’70s keyboard-vibe variety (samples here include Joe Chambers, Gary Burton, the Hearth Brothers).
For early-20s hip hoppers, jazz represents childhood background music, overheard from their parents’ living rooms, and usually signifies the hazy, bittersweet sentimentality of growing up. In Nas’s case, this is implicit: His dad, the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara (sideman with David Murray, Don Pullen, and others), let his son hang out in recording studios, but then, according to Nas, shrugged at his interest in hip hop. Dara contributes a muted, vexing solo at the close of Illmatic’s “Life’s a Bitch,” and one wonders how he feels about his son’s remorseful-resentful, coming-of-age depictions.
One of the positives about hardcore gangsta rap was its site-specific narratives: After a Too $hort, Ice-T, or Ice Cube song, you felt as if you’d been on a sunrise-to-sundown drive from one dead end of the ‘hood to the other. Dr. Dre codified all that, meticulously recycling the same scenes ad nauseam but Nas breathes life into the approach. Illmatic may be the most extensive tour of a housing project ever committed to CD, replete with sleeve photos of deceased friends, and housing police atop mountain bikes. On the Premiere-produced “N.Y. State of Mind” and “Represent,” Nas plays sleight-of-hand with syllables, taking us on an almost anti-narrative through lobbies where wide-eyed kids watch crack fiends scrap, and down stairways where teenage boys role dice and laugh at baseheads.
These are powerfully stressed-out images, but Nas hints that he’s after something more personally revealing. In “The World Is Yours,” he muses about writing “all the words past the margins,” and it’s there, past where most rappers bother to peek, that he may eventually find his truth. And when that search is as vivid as his tour of the projects, the comparisons to Rakim will be more deserved.