Label: Columbia Records
Lists such as the one you're reading inevitably lead to disagreements, if not full-on arguments. Fair-minded fans can disagree about whether the '90s was indeed rap's greatest decade. As Jigga once put it, folks will "argue all day about who's the best MC, Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas." One thing they don't argue much about: who made the best album. Because it would be extremely difficult to make the case that Nas's Illmatic isn't the greatest rap album of the decade, if not all time.
Born at the crossroads of rap and the blues, Nasir Jones was perfectly positioned to lay down a cornerstone in the temple of hip-hop. His father was a Mississippi blues man and jazz cornetist whose sons grew up in a loving, book-filled apartment that happened to be situated within the infamous Queensbridge housing projects. Young Nas breathed the same air and drank the same water as Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane. He soaked up the energy of early park jams and came of age during the epic inter-borough conflict between the Juice Crew and Boogie Down Productions. Nas absorbed the blow of BDP's 1997 knockout punch "The Bridge Is Over" like a tightly coiled spring, and seven years later he was ready to bounce back and "Represent" on behalf of his borough, his projects, and himself.
The taut collection of 10 tracks marked a turning point in the art of hip-hop, inspiring a generation of MCs with densely wrought wordplay profound enough to be taught in college classes alongside the greatest literature of the ages.
As Erik Parker and One-9's powerful documentary Time Is Illmatic makes clear, Nasir Jones was a teenage prodigy with so much trouble on his mind. His parents had split up, his projects had been flooded with crack, and his best friend, Ill Will, had been gunned down in the Bridge. Nas drew on all the pain and alienation when he connected with Large Professor and made his first stunning guest appearance on the Main Source posse cut "Live at the Barbeque." By the time Nas was ready to make an album, most of New York's best producers were lining up to work with him—DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, and a relatively unknown talent named L.E.S. Instead of choosing just one, Nas wanted to rock with all of them, and Faith Newman at Columbia Records backed him up, a decision that would forever change the way rap albums were made.
At the time of Illmatic's release, Dr. Dre held sway over planet hip-hop in the wake of his landmark album The Chronic. In late 1993 Death Row would follow that up with Snoop's Doggystyle while on the East Coast the Wu-Tang Clan was bringing the ruckus with Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But none of the aforementioned releases possessed the same lyrical or musical ambition as Illmatic. The taut collection of 10 tracks marked a turning point in the art of hip-hop, inspiring a generation of MCs with densely wrought wordplay profound enough to be taught in college classes alongside the greatest literature of the ages. It's because of Illmatic that there is now a Nasir Jones fellowship at Harvard University—not bad for a ninth-grade dropout.
The first-person reflections of a young man growing up in Queensbridge, Illmatic painted a vivid picture of life in urban America after the crack boom. The all-killer-no-filler lineup had the brevity and severity of scripture. Songs like "N.Y. State of Mind," "Life's a Bitch," and "One Love" conveyed a mental state that spoke to countless young men in America.
"The story of the album was about boy to man," Nas explained during the 20th anniversary celebrations surrounding his landmark release. "How do you survive, what do you wanna do to express yourself?" For Nas, these two questions were so intertwined as to be one and the same. He found the answer in the street culture of hip-hop, and 20 years later we're still unpacking the riches with which he blessed us. —Rob Kenner