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Nas - Illmatic (Full Album) (1994)39:51

Nas - Illmatic (Full Album) (1994)

Illmatic cover

Studio album by Nas
Released April 19, 1994
Recorded 1992–93; Battery Studios, Unique Studios, Chung King Studios, D&D Recording; New York City
Genre Hip hop
Length 39:51
Label Columbia
Producer DJ Premier, Large Professor, L.E.S., MC Serch (exec.), Pete Rock, Q-Tip
Nas chronology
It Was Written

"Illmatic" is the debut studio album of American hip hop recording artist Nas, released on April 19, 1994 through Columbia Records. Released when he was 20 years old, Nas signed to Columbia Records with the help of MC Serch, who would later become his manager. The album was recorded during 1992 and 1993 at Chung King Studios, D&D Recording, Battery Studios, and Unique Recording Studios in New York City. Its production was handled by Nas, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and DJ Premier. The album features multi-syllabic internal rhyme patterns and inner city narratives based on Nas's experiences in Queensbridge, New York.

Initially, the sales fell below expectations and its five singles failed to achieve significant chart success, selling 59,000 copies in its first week. Despite the low sales, Illmaitc received rave reviews upon release from music critics and debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200. On January 17, 1996, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and in 2001, it earned platinum certification after shipments of one million copies in the United States.

Since it's release, Illmatic has been recognized as a landmark hip hop album. Its influence on subsequent hip hop artists has been attributed to the album's production and Nas's 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 remains one of the most widely celebrated albums in hip hop history, appearing on numerous best album lists by critics and publications.


As a teenager, Nas wanted to pursue a career as a rapper and enlisted his best friend and neighbor, Queensbridge, Queens-native Willy "Ill Will" Graham, as his DJ. At 15, he met producer Large Professor from Flushing, and was introduced to his group Main Source. Nas made his recorded debut with them, performing the opening verse on "Live at the Barbeque" from their 1991 album Breaking Atoms under the moniker "Nasty Nas." Nas subsequently made his solo debut on his 1992 single "Halftime" for the soundtrack to the film Zebrahead. The single added to the buzz surrounding Nas, earning him comparisons to influential golden age rapper Rakim. Despite his buzz in the underground scene, Nas did not receive an offer for a recording contract, being rejected by major rap labels such as Cold Chillin' and Def Jam Recordings. Nas and Ill Will continued to work together, but their partnership was cut short when Graham was murdered by a gunman in Queensbridge on May 23, 1992; Nas's brother was also shot, but survived, that night. Nas has cited that moment as a "wake-up call" for him.

In mid 1992, MC Serch, whose group 3rd Bass had dissolved, began working on a solo project and approached Nas. At the suggestion of producer T-Ray, Serch collaborated with Nas for "Back to the Grill", the lead single for Serch's 1992 solo debut album Return of the Product. At the recording session for the song, Serch discovered that Nas did not have a recording contract and subsequently contacted Faith Newman, an A&R executive at Sony Music Entertainment. As Serch recounted, "Nas was in a position where his demo had been sittin' around, 'Live at the Barbeque' was already a classic, and he was just tryin' to find a decent deal ... So when he gave me his demo, I shopped it around. I took it to Russell first, Russell said it sounded like G Rap, he wasn't wit' it. So I took it to Faith. Faith loved it, she said she'd been looking for Nas for a year and a half. They wouldn't let me leave the office without a deal on the table."


Prior to recording, DJ Premier had listened to Nas's debut single, later stating "When I heard 'Half Time', that was some next shit to me. That's just as classic to me as 'Eric B For President' and 'The Bridge'. It just had that type of effect. As simple as it is, all of the elements are there. So from that point, after Serch approached me about doing some cuts, it was automatic. You'd be stupid to pass that up even if it wasn't payin' no money." Serch later noted the chemistry between Nas and DJ Premier, recounting that "Primo and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn't a situation where his beats fit their rhymes, they fit each other." While Serch reached out to DJ Premier, Large Professor contacted Pete Rock to collaborate with Nas on what became "The World Is Yours". Shortly afterwards, producers Q-Tip and L.E.S. chose to work on the album. Nas's father, Olu Dara, also contributed with a cornet solo on "Life's a Bitch", which features rapper AZ.

In an early promotional interview, Nas claimed that the name "Illmatic" (meaning "beyond ill" or "the ultimate") was a reference to his incarcerated Queensbridge friend, Illmatic Ice. Nas later described the title name as "supreme ill. It's as ill as ill gets. That shit is a science of everything ill." At the time of its recording, expectations in the hip hop scene were high for Illmatic. In a 1994 interview for The Source, which dubbed him "the second coming", Nas spoke highly of the album, saying that "this feels like a big project that's gonna affect the world [...] We in here on the down low [...] doing something for the world. That's how it feels, that's what it is. For all the ones that think it's all about some ruff shit, talkin' about guns all the time, but no science behind it, we gonna bring it to them like this." AZ recounted recording on the album, "I got on Nas' album and did the 'Life's a Bitch' song, but even then I thought I was terrible on it, to be honest. But once people started hearing that and liking it, that's what built my confidence. I thought, 'OK, I can probably do this.' That record was everything. To be the only person featured on Illmatic when Nas is considered one of the top men in New York at that time, one of the freshest new artists, that was big."

Concerning the recording of the album's opening song "N.Y. State of Mind", producer DJ Premier later stated "Nas — he's one of our saviors now. When we did ‘N.Y. State of Mind,’ at the beginning when he says, ‘Straight out the dungeons of rap / Where fake niggas don’t make it back,’ then you hear him say, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ ’cause he had just written it. He's got the beat running in the studio, but he doesn’t know how he's going to format how he's going to convey it. So he's going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ and I’m counting him in [to begin his verse]. One, two, three. And then you can hear him go, ‘Yo,’ and then he goes right into it." DJ Premier later discussed the unexpectedness of Nas's delivery during the recording, stating "He didn’t know how he was gonna come in, but he just started going because we were recording. I’m actually yelling, ‘We’re recording!’ and banging on the [vocal booth] window. ‘Come on, get ready!’ You hear him start the shit: Rappers…. And then everyone in the studio was like, ‘Oh, my God’, ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that was when he was up and coming, his first album. So we was like, 'Yo, this guy is gonna be big.'"


Lyrical themesEdit

Nas, who was twenty years old when the album was released, focuses on depicting his own experiences, creating highly detailed first-person narratives that deconstruct the troubled life of an inner city teenager. One writer describes the theme of the album as a “[S]tory of a gifted writer born into squalor, trying to claw his way out of the trap. It's somewhere between The Basketball Diaries and Native Son….” The narratives featured in Illmatic originate from Nas's own experiences as an adolescent growing up in Queensbridge, as the lyrics allude to the housing projects located in the Long Island City-section of Queens, New York. Nas said in an interview in 2001: “When I made Illmatic I was a little kid in Queensbridge trapped in the ghetto. My soul was trapped in Queensbridge projects.”

Along with its narratives, Illmatic is also distinct for its many portrayals and descriptions of places, people, and interactions. In his songs, Nas often depicts the corners and boulevards of Queensbridge, while mentioning the names of streets, friends, local crews and drug dealers, and utilizing vernacular slang indigenous to his hometown. Poet and author Kevin Coval describes this approach to songwriting as that of a “hip-hop poet-reporter...rooted in the intimate specificity of locale.” Commenting on Nas's use of narrative, Sohail Daulatzai, Professor of Film and Media Studies at University of Southern California, compares the album to cinema, citing its "detailed descriptions, dense reportage, and visually stunning rhymes..." In Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic, he writes: "Like the 1965 landmark masterpiece film The Battle of Algiers, which captured the Algerian resistance against French colonialism, Illmatic brilliantly blurred the lines between fiction and documentary, creating a heightened sense of realism and visceral eloquence for Nas's renegade first-person narratives and character-driven odes.”


Illmatic also garnered praise for its production. According to critics, the album's four major producers (Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip) extensively contributed to the cohesive atmospheric aesthetic that permeated the album, while still retaining each's individual, trademark sound. Charles Aaron of Spin wrote of the producers' contributions, "nudging him toward Rakim-like-rumination, they offer subdued, slightly downcast beats, which in hip hop today means jazz, primarily of the '70s keyboard-vibe variety". Q magazine noted that "the musical backdrops are razor sharp; hard beats but with melodic hooks and loops, atmospheric background piano, strings or muted trumpet, and samples ... A potent treat."

The majority of the album consists of vintage funk, soul, and jazz samples. Commenting album and its use of samples, Pitchfork 's Jeff Weiss claims that both Nas and his producers found inspiration for the album's production through the music of their childhood: "The loops rummage through their parent's collection: Donald Byrd, Joe Chambers, Ahmad Jamal, Parliament, Michael Jackson. Nas invites his rolling stone father, Olu Dara to blow the trumpet coda on "Life's A Bitch". Jazz rap fusion had been done well prior, but rarely with such subtlety. Nas didn't need to make the connection explicit—he allowed you to understand what jazz was like the first time your parents and grandparents heard it." Similarly, journalist Ben Yew omments on the album's nostalgic sounds, "The production, accentuated by infectious organ loop[s], vocal sample[s], and synthesizer-like pads in the background, places your mind in a cheerful, reminiscent, mood."


Illmatic Album Cover Comparison

The cover of the 1974 jazz album, A Child Is Born (seen left) has been cited as a possible influence on Illmatic's artwork.

The album cover of Illmatic features a picture of Nas as a child, which was taken after his father, musician Olu Dara, returned home from an overseas tour. The original cover was intended to have a picture of Nas holding Jesus Christ in a headlock, reflecting the religious imagery of Nas's rap on "Live at the Barbeque"; "When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus".

The accepted cover, designed by Aimee Macauley, features a photo of Nas as a child superimposed over a backdrop of a New York city block, taken by Danny Clinch. In a 1994 interview, Nas discussed the concept behind the photo of him at age 7, stating "That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That's the year everything set off. That's the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn't leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there's more out there." As yet, Nas has not pointed to any outside influence for the artwork of his album cover. Yet according to Ego Trip, the cover of Illmatic is "reputedly" believed to have been inspired by a jazz album, Howard Hanger Trio's A Child Is Born (1974) -- whose cover also features a photograph of a child, superimposed on an urban landscape.



Illmatic was released on April 19, 1994 through Columbia Records in the United States. The album also featured international distribution that same year in countries including France, the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom. In its first week of release, Illmatic made its debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart at number 12, while selling 59,000 copies. In spite of this, initial record sales fell below expectations. The album's five radio singles failed to obtain considerable Billboard success, as each single did not gain significant charting on the Billboard Hot 100. The lead single "Halftime" only charted on the Hot Rap Singles chart at number 8, while "Life's a Bitch" did not chart at all. The album also suffered from extensive bootlegging prior to its release. "Regional demand was so high," writes music critic Jeff Weiss, "that Serch claimed he discovered a garage with 60,000 bootlegged copies." While initial sales were low, the album was eventually certified gold in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on January 17, 1996 after shipping 500,000 copies; the RIAA later certified Illmatic platinum on December 11, 2001, following shipments in excess of one million copies. As of April 20, 2014, the album sold 1,686,000 copies in the US. In April 2002, the album was also certified gold by the Canadian Recording Industry Association for shipments in excess of 50,000 copies in Canada.


Illmatic received wide acclaim from contemporary music critics, who hailed it as a hip hop masterpiece. NME called its music "rhythmic perfection", and Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune cited it as the best hardcore hip hop album "out of the East Coast in years". Dimitri Ehrlich of Entertainment Weekly credited Nas for giving his neighborhood "proper respect" while establishing himself and said that the clever lyrics and harsh beats "draw listeners into the borough's lifestyle with poetic efficiency." Touré, writing for Rolling Stone, hailed Nas as an elite rapper because of his articulation, detailed lyrics, and Rakim-like tone, all of which he said "pair [Illmatic's] every beautiful moment with its harsh antithesis."

Christopher John Farley of Time praised the album as a "wake-up call to [Nas'] listeners" and commended him for rendering rather than glorifying "the rough world he comes from". USA Today's James T. Jones IV cited his lyrics as "the most urgent poetry since Public Enemy's" and also commended Nas for honestly depicting dismal ghetto life without resorting to the sensationalism and misogyny of contemporary gangsta rappers. Richard Harrington of The Washington Post praised Nas for "balancing limitations and possibilities, distinguishing hurdles and springboards, and acknowledging his own growth from roughneck adolescent to a maturing adult who can respect and criticize the culture of violence that surrounds him".

In a mixed review, Heidi Siegmund of the Los Angeles Times found most of Illmatic hampered by "tired attitudes and posturing", and interpreted its acclaim from East Coast critics as "an obvious attempt to wrestle hip-hop away from the West". Charles Aaron of Spin felt that the comparisons to Rakim "will be more deserved" if Nas can expand on his ruminative lyrics with "something more personally revealing". In his review for Playboy, Robert Christgau called it "New York's typically spare and loquacious entry in the post-gangsta sweepstakes" and recommended it to listeners who "crave full-bore authenticity without brutal posturing".

Track listingEdit

No. TitleWriter(s)Producer(s) Length
1. "The Genesis"  N. Jones, F. BraithwaiteNas, Faith N. 1:45
2. "N.Y. State of Mind"  N. Jones, C. MartinDJ Premier 4:54
3. "Life's a Bitch" (featuring AZ)N. Jones, A. Cruz, O. Dara, R. Wilson, O. ScottL.E.S., Nas (co.) 3:30
4. "The World Is Yours"  N. Jones, P. PhillipsPete Rock 4:50
5. "Halftime"  N. Jones, W.P. Mitchell, G. ByrdLarge Professor 4:20
6. "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)"  N. Jones, C. Martin, R. Wilson, P. BarsellaDJ Premier 4:08
7. "One Love"  N. Jones, J. Davis, J. HeathQ-Tip 5:25
8. "One Time 4 Your Mind"  N. Jones, W.P. MitchellLarge Professor 3:18
9. "Represent"  N. Jones, C. MartinDJ Premier 4:12
10. "It Ain't Hard to Tell"  N. Jones, W.P. MitchellLarge Professor 3:22

Samples Edit

"The Genesis"[1]

"N.Y. State of Mind"[1]

"Life's a Bitch"[1]

"The World Is Yours"[1]


  • "Dead End" from the Hair Japanese cast original soundtrack
  • "Soul Travelin'" by Gary Byrd
  • "School Boy Crush" by Average White Band

"Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)"[1]

"One Love"[1]

"One Time 4 Your Mind"[1]


"It Ain't Hard to Tell"[1]

"Life's a Bitch" (Remix)[1]

"The World Is Yours" (Remix)[1]

"One Love" (Remix)[1]

"It Ain't Hard to Tell" (Remix)[1]

"On the Real"[1]

"Star Wars"[1]

A February 19, 2014 Village Voice cover story ranked Illmatic as the Most New York City album ever.

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