Why you should care
Because genre-breaking artists come around once in a lifetime, and Nas has been that artist for the last 20 years.
“Street’s disciple my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle…”
These were the first words recorded by an 17-year-old Queens native named Nasir “Nasty Nas” Jones. The masses weren’t prepared for such ferocious, thought-bending lyrics from a teenager on the posse cut “Live at the BBQ” from Main Source’s 1991 debut album, Breaking Atoms. Bursting on the scene with verbal vigor and velocity, Nas (who never completed a full year of high school) rapped with the confidence of someone steeped in world history, street knowledge and a wild imagination toward religion:
“When I was twelve/I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus…”
In this lyrical tour de force, he goes on to murder police, kidnap the president’s wife, sync his thoughts with Steven Spielberg and slam MC’s on cement. From the moment I heard it, I was hooked. Not by the violence or vulgarity, but by his vivid depictions of scenes so graphic and jarring. The clarity in his voice, the extra punch on certain syllables and tight control over his stream of thoughts scream young genius. Yet after this astounding display of artistry, it would be a year and a half before we would hear Nas’ solo voice on the airwaves with the stone-hard “Halftime” from the soundtrack to the film Zebrahead.
Nas’ first album demanded that hip-hop be placed alongside the greats of music period.
The fervor that Nas’ words stirred whenever he rapped, coupled with his jazzy cool persona and fresh-faced model looks, built such anticipation for his 1994 debut album, Illmatic, that it became one of hip-hop’s instant classics. The lead single, “Ain’t Hard to Tell,” produced by his longtime collaborator, Large Professor (the man responsible for his “Live at the BBQ” feature), sampled Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and meshed the words of a wise teenager with lush melodies amid harsh drum patterns. It set the standard for the forthcoming 10-track, 40-minute long album that followed and was the defining sound for hard-core hip-hop heads’ ears.
What Illmatic did for hip-hop was unlike anything we’d seen before. Where other lauded recordings helped establish the culture as a legitimate musical genre, Nas’ first album demanded that hip-hop be placed alongside the greats of music period. He captured the plight of a housing project kid, trapped by his surroundings yet freed by the act of transcribing them in flights of poetic prose. All while writing songs of hope and fulfilling dreams and inspiring generations of MCs to learn from his rap display. Since Illmatic was a collection of the greatest producers that New York has created in Pete Rock, Large Professor, Ganstarr’s DJ Premier and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, the stage was set for greatness. That special era will come to life this week in a documentary about Nas’ career, Time Is Illmatic, which opens New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. And a 20th-anniversary edition of Illmatic will be released on April 15, with new versions of the classic tracks.
Ten albums, three collaborative projects, a few films and 20 years after Illmatic was unleashed on April 19, 1994, Nas, looking preternaturally young for a ripe 40-year-old, celebrated his two decades of making music by performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month. Who would have thought that an introverted, comic-book-loving, wordsmithing prodigy would recite his street-life raps dressed in a tuxedo, backed by the revered National Symphony Orchestra? Not me.
Watch the legendary artist bask in the love of his talent and accomplishments, performing “You’re Da Man” and “Live at the BBQ” in D.C.