Classic Album Review: Nas' 'Illmatic'

Along with The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas helped to firmly re-establish New York City as the center of the rap world.
Nas Illmatic album cover

Editor's Note: From time to time, DJBooth will dig into its vaults and pull out a classic album that deserves a much-belated review. This week, writer Matt Juss examines Nas' seminal breakthrough album Illmatic.

April 1994 was a game-changing month for the music industry, on both the East and West coasts.

In the Pacific Northwest, Kurt Cobain—songwriter and frontman for the band Nirvana—was found dead at his Washington home, shocking everyone in the nation. But as the industry lost one great talent, the month also brought a new talent on the other side of the country, rapper Nas.

On April 19, 1994, Nas released his debut album, Illmatic, which is considered by many to be the rebirth of East Coast hip-hop. Although the album didn’t have much commercial success when it was released, it was eventually certified Gold by the RIAA in 1996.

Few in the music industry realized it at the time, but Illmatic would change the landscape of hip-hop forever. Prior to its release, the hip-hop industry had devolved into a disjointed genre, especially in style and location. With the rise of Dr. DreSnoop Dogg, and Death Row Records, the West Coast—or more specifically, Los Angeles—seemed to be the new capital of hip-hop. Along with the development of thoughtful rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest, the hip-hop scene was changing.

With things up for grabs on the East Coast, the rapper born Nasir Jones took his chance. On Illmatic, the Queensbridge native showcased the type of raw and gritty material that reflected the violent times that were crippling the New York streets. But more importantly, he ushered in a unique poetic style that combined the image of gangsta rap with the thoughtful narrative and deep analysis often found in conscious rap.

Along with The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas helped to firmly re-establish New York City as the center of the rap world.

What makes Illmatic so unique—so timeless—is how concise and simple the album is. The album consists of only 10 tracks, with no skits, no wasted time, and no mainstream-appealing production. 

Every track is memorable, but 16 years following its release, "Life’s A B*tch," "It Ain’t Hard To Tell," and "N.Y. State of Mind" remain all-time classics.