When Illmatic dropped on April 19, 1994, the debut album from Nas wasn’t an immediate commercial success. Two decades later, though, it claims a staying power unrivaled by any other in hip-hop history. On “N.Y. State of Mind,” the Joe Chambers sampled bass line off “Mind Rain” creeps up on the gutter boom-bap mastery crafted by DJ Premier. Meanwhile, the Columbia Records rapper commands his gritty tales as the exalted ghetto griot he is. The song sets the tone for the classic album and is as head-nodding today as it was then. It stands as no surprise a celebratory retrospective edition of Illmatic hit stores Tuesday with remixes and previously unreleased material. The rapper performed cuts from his 20-year-old opus at the Kennedy Center backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. Taking a page from Rock the Bells, Nas performs the album in its entirety this weekend at Coachella.
“It’s almost like a heat check for hip-hop, especially when looking back at an album like Illmatic and an artist like Nas,” says UC Irvine professor Sohail Daulatzai. “At the time that it was out, it represented almost a kind of authenticity or purity that hadn’t existed in hip-hop before it.”
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