Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ is now 30, and it ain’t hard to tell why it is still a landmark, genre-defining album

OPINION: Nas’ game-changing debut album is now 30 years old and is still a clinic in lyricism and worldbuilding.

Nas performs onstage during Leg 2 in North America of NY State of Mind Tour at Bridgestone Arena on September 20, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images for Live Nation)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On April 19, 2024, Nasir Jones — better known as GOAT-level, legendary MC Nas — and Christopher Martin — better known as GOAT-level, legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier — dropped the debut single “Define My Name” from their upcoming collaborative album. In the late 90s, a collaborative album between Nas and Premier would have broken a not-yet-existent Twitter. Hip-hop heads would’ve salivated at the idea of two titans of the genre, seemingly at their respective peaks, giving us a one-rapper-one producer project. You can count me amongst those people; I am still holding out hope that there is a version of Group Home’s “Livin’ Proof” album with Nas on every song that Premier has kept in the vault — maybe in his will, his final gift to hip-hop will be unleashing those recordings. One can only hope. 

Be that as it may, I don’t love “Define My Name.” Maybe I’m just old, and soon-to-be 45-year-old me doesn’t pine for new songs that sound old anymore. To be sure, I will listen to their album if it ever comes out; both artists have earned my listens, but it really just made me want to go back and listen to Nas’ debut album, “Illmatic,” which on April 19 turned 30 years old. I pulled up the album and was transported right back to the mid-to-late 1990s and all of the arguments, debates and discussions my friends had for hours into the night about whether or not it was the greatest hip-hop album of all time, a seemingly foolish discussion in retrospect. In 1994, we had no idea where hip-hop would go or if the album would age well. 

In 2024, we know the answer: “Illmatic” is still one of — if not THE — greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It is as good in 2024 as it was in 1994. And I don’t say that lightly. 

I was late to “Illmatic.” When the album was released in April 1994, I was a freshman in high school and my New York hip-hop listening was pretty limited to Pete Rock & CL Smooth and De La Soul. I was HEAVY into West Coast and Southern artists at this point. Plus, Outkast’s “Player’s Ball” video was in rotation and looked a lot more familiar to me than all of the videos out of New York. And when Outkast’s “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” dropped a week later, well, my entire hip-hop life shifted to my region. 

It wasn’t until college, when I met friends from all over and got interested in sampling and producers, that I really started listening to hip-hop from New York City, and that’s when “Illmatic” ascended into my list of personal favorite albums. Not only was Nas an otherworldly lyricist, but the beats — provided by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, LES, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest and Large Professor — are unassailable. I do remember seeing the video for “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and loving the record, but it didn’t make me want to listen to “Illmatic.” But even today, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” is still my favorite record on the album. Nas’ wordplay and flow on the song is seared in my mind. When I did spend time trying to write rhymes, I always wanted to be as good as Nas on that song. 

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I don’t know if it’s the elder statesman stage of life I’ve entered, but I truly appreciate that so much of the music that shaped my teenage years still holds up well and is still worthy of discussion. The debates don’t matter anymore; “Illmatic” is one of the most important albums of the genre. You could teach a semester’s worth of classes on this album and the perspective and ability of Nas to take his environment and craft such striking narratives, within a hip-hop framework. Nas is now and will always be considered one of the greatest to have ever touched a microphone; to think he wrote this album as a teenager is scary. 

When I did dig into the album shortly after starting college, I viewed Nas as a rapper whose writing all rappers should aspire to, and I still feel this way about the album. When I have discussions with younger people (nephews, students) about hip-hop, my default is to have them listen to “Illmatic” purely for the lyricism and Nas’ ability to build and explain a world from a project window. “N.Y. State of Mind” is a song so many rappers have aspired to make for a reason: It feels like New York City. I felt like Queensbridge was a place I needed to understand in order to understand New York City. While that proved to be untrue for my life, the fact that an album could place me somewhere I’d never been impressed me, even today. 

It’s even more impressive that Nas is still a top-tier lyricist; that talent cannot be overstated enough. While I have no idea what a DJ Premier and Nas album might ultimately sound like, I’m forever thankful for what the two of them gave us on “Illmatic,” what Nas unleashed onto the world and how it helped shape my hip-hop education. 

Represent, represent. 

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.