When one is given the unenviable task of naming the greatest hip-hop album of all time, it’s not entirely uncommon to see Nas’ Illmatic named as one of the go-to picks. Originally released on this day, twenty-seven years ago in 1994, it’s fair to say that the rap landscape has shifted rather drastically. Even in Nas’ own home city of New York, where the current crop of rising stars is exploring the rising drill movement to great effect.
At the time of Illmatic’s release, however, the era was strictly golden in nature. Production, which was handled by names like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Erick Sermon, RZA, Havoc, Large Professor, and more, featured heavy use of sampling. The aesthetic was, more often than not, rugged and raw — qualities that reflected the lifestyle and surroundings of the emcees. When Nas ultimately stepped up to deliver his own debut album, he was only twenty years old. Illmatic’s release was only two years removed from the death of Nas’ friend and collaborator Ill Will, who was murdered in a Queensbridge shooting.
Having lived through tragedy and experienced a rise on the competitive and cutthroat rap scene, Nas entered the game with wisdom beyond his years. His reflections remain poignant to this day, his penmanship a key element behind the album’s infinite replay value. In fact, Illmatic was recently inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a testament to its role in shaping American musical culture as we know it.
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Though Illmatic’s reputation casts a large shadow, occasionally shrouding some of Nas’ other excellent bodies of work from the spotlight, it remains impressive to see an album that remains so revered twenty-seven years removed from its release. In honor of the album’s birthday, consider sharing your favorite songs from Illmatic in the comments below. Congratulations, Nas — and many thanks for delivering a timeless project to the game.