Nas lied to us. Four tracks into his debut album, he told listeners, “The world is yours,” but he was wrong. And if he didn’t know it going into the release of Illmatic, he knew almost immediately after. As the critical rap universe would assure him, the world belonged to Nas himself—a New York rap prodigy hailing from the talent-rich Queensbridge housing projects whose 10-track debut realized the promise he’d shown as a guest MC on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque.” And while the album was immediately recognized as a gem by those in the know, its impact on hip-hop at large would only fully be appreciated in the years following.
Illmatic is only nine actual songs (not counting opener “The Genesis"), and while it was reportedly released in haste to combat the rampant bootlegging of an early version, it’s no less heavy a listen. Its first single, “Halftime,” appears on the soundtrack of the 1992 film Zebrahead and, coupled with his “Live at the Barbeque” verse, positioned Nas as hip-hop's next great MC, well before an album was ready. With Illmatic, Nas' poetic aptitude reveals itself, the MC introducing turns of phrase and perspective previously unheard within the art form. “My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper's breath/I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps/Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond/Sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket lining,” he spits on “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.”
Illmatic’s sample-heavy sound comes courtesy of a veritable dream team of production talent (DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and L.E.S.), a lineup that helped to break a long-standing tradition of single-producer hip-hop albums. Together they present a unified vision of the murky, guttural, jazz-heavy hip-hop that would come to define the '90s New York sound. Aside from L.E.S., the group were all established in their lanes, but they'd elevate their practices for Nas, an MC of his caliber making it that much easier for everyone to shine. Over menacing piano lines (“N.Y. State of Mind”) and horn stabs (“It Ain't Hard to Tell”), Nas is able to transition seamlessly and continuously between freewheeling non sequiturs and vivid storytelling (a verse from “One Love” would inspire a scene in video director Hype Williams' feature film Belly).
The only person who gets a guest verse on the effort is AZ (“Life’s a Bitch”), and the Brooklyn MC makes the absolute most of the opportunity, effectively writing himself into history by “visualizin' the realism of life in actuality.” Did AZ know then what Illmatic would go on to mean for Nas and for hip-hop in general? Was he aware of the album’s potency and its likelihood to launch the man they called Nasty Nas toward superstardom while also setting a course for him to become an all-time great? Or was AZ simply chasing his own moment, another victim of Nas' unintentional goading, believing his friend when he told him, “The world is yours.”