Nas, Nas, Nas was not the king of disco, despite what the "It Ain't Hard To Tell" remix would have you believe. But he was a king, the king of rap. In 1994, at the age of 19, Nasty Nasir Jones would ascend the throne with the April release of Illmatic, his debut LP. A raw talent, one of the first to make a name on guest appearances, Nas's shocking, borderline horrorcore (before horrorcore existed) raps of the early '90s created an enormous buzz for the Queensbridge MC.
But those wicked raps only scratched the surface of what was to come. Dense yet melodic, wrought yet nonchalant, the rhymes on Illmatic represented the confluence of the last seven years of rap innovation. He was a child of '88. From Rakim's aloof thoughtfulness to Kane's multi-syllablic juggling to Kool G Rap's corner-drug-dealing realism to the educated militancy of Chuck D, even the gripping narrative skills of Slick Rick—Nas had it all. And he had it all quietly. Nothing about Illmatic was labored.
Brief but effective, the LP showcased this range efficiently, with nary a heavy-handed or telegraphed moment. Songs like "N.Y. State of Mind" and "Life's a Bitch" demonstrated his ability to string the almost rambling moments of his internal monologue into ornate tapestries of reflection. On other tracks, like "Memory Lane" and "One Love," he explored more linear storytelling, but with a degree of nuance and subtext that had not been achieved in hip-hop previously. And he married both on songs like "One Time 4 Your Mind" and "Represent," slipping effortlessly from first-person narrative to meandering thoughts.
Having said all of that, though, one cannot discount the importance of The Source on Nas's ascendancy. A handful of other albums had earned the distinction of 5 Mics previously, but at a time when the magazine was still growing. Illmatic's anointment as a "classic" came as the mag reached maturity as an editorial product, and ubiquity as publication.
As a result, like when Lil Wayne declared himself better than Jay-Z, that perfect rating (especially in the face of, say, The Chronic receiving only 4.5 Mics) sparked a national debate around Nas's excellence. But as time passed, and the album's layers were pulled apart, absorbed, and appreciated, the young king's legitimacy was cemented. Accolades aside, in 1994, if you wielded a mic, Nas was indeed the musician, inflicting composition.
Honorable Mentions: The Notorious B.I.G., Scarface, Redman
It would be a lie to say that by the end of 1994, Biggie's meteoric success didn't take a lot of the wind out of Nas's sails. And sales. But Big's burn was a slow one that didn't reach a fever pitch until Q4. He rode into '94 on a string of guest spots with the likes of Mary J. Blige and Supercat, but things changed during that summer.
With Nas conspicuously quiet on the radio, Big filled the void with jam after jam ("Flava In Ya Ear" Remix followed by "Unbelievable" followed by "Juicy" followed by "Da B Side" with Da Brat). Still, when Ready to Die dropped, despite its unimpeachable quality and ability to connect far beyond Illmatic's Tri-state acclaim, it did not catapult Big, lyrically, to the front of the pack. But it did position him to jockey for the top spot the following year.
1994 was a huge year for Scarface because The Diary proved not only his staying power, but also his ability to transition from the uptempo East Coast-ish production of the early '90s to the slow, whiny G-Funk era. And that he could do it gracefully, telling the same kinds of dark stories (see: "Hand On The Dead Body," "Jesse James") as in the Geto Boys' glory days.
Also slowing things down, and daring to tread on the dark side, was Redman, who stomped ruggedly through 1994 making it abundantly clear that his blunted funk still made sense in a post-Chronic, post-36 Chambers world. — Noah Callahan-Bever (@N_C_B)