Illmatic is the debut studio album by American rapper Nas, released on April 19, 1994, by Columbia Records. After signing with the label with the help of MC Serch, Nas recorded the album in 1992–1993 at Chung King Studios, D&D Recording, Battery Studios, and Unique Recording Studios in New York City. Its production was handled by DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S. and Nas himself. Styled as a hardcore hip hop album, Illmatic features multi-syllabic internal rhymes and inner-city narratives based on Nas's experiences in Queensbridge, New York.
The album debuted at #12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 59,000 copies in its first week. However, its initial sales fell below expectations and its five singles failed to achieve significant chart success. Despite the album's low initial sales, Illmatic received rave reviews from most music critics, who praised its production and Nas' lyricism. On January 17, 1996, the album was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and on December 11, 2001 it earned a Platinum certification after shipping one million copies in the United States.
Since its initial reception, Illmatic has been recognized by writers and music critics as a landmark album in East Coast hip hop. Its influence on subsequent hip hop artists has been attributed to the album's production and Nas' lyricism. It also contributed to the revival of the New York City rap scene, introducing a number of stylistic trends to the region. The album is widely regarded as the greatest hip hop album of all time, appearing on numerous best album lists by critics and publications.
Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 2012 edition (number: 402)
With expectations high for Nas' 10th studio set, Life Is Good, now's a fine time to take a look back at where the New York rapper's career began.
Illmatic's cover features the artist aged seven. This is when he "started seeing the future," as Nas told MTV in 1994, as the mainstream media slowly began its affair with a debut album that, today, is regarded a classic.
At the time of Illmatic's release, Nas was just 20 years old. But to listen to these detailed rhymes, one might think they were the work of a man with considerably more life experience.
Never does Nas hold back lyrically - these tracks are deconstructions of the surrounding environment, assessments of his situation and maps towards the way out. A Queensbridge native, Nas grew up in a densely populated housing project - all around him, stories were playing out 24/7.
With no shortage of inspiration, his creative juices flowed with an effortlessness as sweet as the end-result rhymes. The same Long Island City blocks had produced Roxanne Shante and Marley Marl - the words "fertile breeding ground" come to mind. But Nas would ultimately outshine these pioneering talents.
Riding expert production from DJ Premier, Large Professor and others, heavy beats set atop jazz- and funk-sampling melodies that expedited accessibility, Nas' wordplay entertains as effectively as it educates. Frequently he refers to younger years - both One Time 4 Your Mind and Halftime recall experiences as a 10-year-old.
Memory Lane is nostalgic yet cemented in the (then) present, and also throws ahead to an unseen future. "My duration's infinite," he claims, simultaneously implying lineage with the rap game's greats: "I drop the ancient manifested hip hop." It's a boast of timelessness that would ring true.
Yet Illmatic failed to immediately engage with the commercial rap market. Critical success came easier: several publications labelled it a vital release. And time's done right by Illmatic, as nowadays tracks like N.Y. State of Mind and The World Is Yours are as synonymous with the early- to mid-90s east coast scene as anything by The Notorious B.I.G. or Wu-Tang Clan. The latter cut would be even sampled by Jay-Z on his 1996 debut LP, Reasonable Doubt.
Life Is Good… but it couldn't have gone that way without Illmatic.