An Against-the-Grain Hip-Hop Debut
In the early '90s, West Coast gangstas ruled hip-hop. The feisty Ice Cube, formerly of N.W.A., released three straight million-selling albums describing the brutality in South Central Los Angeles. MCs from everywhere were still parsing producer Dr. Dre's 1992 magnum opus The Chronic (see pg. 236), and among that hit's young stars was the redoubtable Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose Doggystyle topped the charts in 1994.
Into this moment walked Nasir Jones, a perceptive New York kid who'd dropped out of school and earned his street cred in the then-volatile neighborhood near the Queensboro Bridge. ("When I made Illmatic," Nas told MTV later, "my soul was trapped in the Queensbridge projects.") The son of jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, Nas hooked up with producers from the alternative rap underground—Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and DJ Premier—and began making hip-hop that used sophisticated, often jazz-influenced loops to support his cagey poetics. Lacing trace amounts of bitterness into his cadences, Nas sounded supremely calm venting about how he'd been betrayed by women, his friends, and the educational system. On the somewhat ironic "One Love," he realizes that some of the people he's been running with aren't trustworthy, observing exasperatedly, "When we start the revolution, all they'll probably do is squeal."
Nas understood that he had to project a certain toughness just to get heard, but he wasn't interested in glorifying violence—one distinguishing characteristic of Illmatic is the way resolute optimism serves as an antidote to the bleak surroundings, an idea overtly expressed on "The World Is Yours," but also evident on "One Time 4 Your Mind" and "Represent." The album, which features exactly one guest star (radical for a hip-hop debut), lasts under forty minutes. That's all the time it takes Nas to separate himself from the pack: While some MCs brutalize listeners, Nas relies on finesse and verbal dexterity to make the narratives not simply "real," but gut-wrenching.
Released: 1994, Columbia
Key Tracks: "N.Y. State of Mind," "The World Is Yours," "Life's a Bitch."
Catalog Choice: Street's Disciple
Next Stop: Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt
Book Page: 540