I remember when I first got my own copy of Illmatic. I was about 18 and bought it from a CD from a local record store in my hometown that doesn’t exist anymore. I drove around the city at dusk with a friend, trying to absorb all of the elements of the piece of classic hip-hop. Each song drew me closer to feeling as if I were transported back to 1994 when Nas first dropped the LP. I could see myself in New York City in the 90s, walking around in a pair of Timbs, blasting NY State of Mind through a portable cassette player while smoking a Newport.
Of course, this was far from my reality — I was in preschool in ‘94 and had no idea who Nas was until he released his fourth album, Nastradamus. My first real experience listening to Nas (at least one that I can actively remember) was seeing the You Owe Me video he did with Ginuwine on BET. The song was more or less forgettable for most people. The only thing that stood out about it was the Timbaland beat and overly flashy 90s patent leather apparel that made its way to the beginning of the new millenium.
Listening to Illmatic in my car at 18 was almost as if I’d been given a second chance to experience the greatness of Nas for the first time. It was that day, that moment in my life, I could see with unobstructed vision why Nas was such a big deal in hip-hop. It made sense to me why he was one of the greats, and why Illmatic was such a classic. I’ll never be able to experience 90s hip-hop in its heyday. By the time I got ahold of “the classics,” almost everyone I knew was already cranking that Soulja Boy and freaking out over the release of The Carter III.
The age of classic hip-hop was just a blip in history reserved for hip-hop oldheads and weirdly nostalgic kids like myself. But despite the age gaps and years past since the release, the feeling the album gave me was the same as if I’d gotten it in ‘94. The beats were genius and reflective of the time. The lyrics were poetry, and I was left with a feeling of longing when it was over. I wondered how it was possible for someone to put out such a monumental album at 17, let alone to have written it at 15. After all, I wasn’t too far off from that age when I heard it, and I knew I was incapable of doing something similar at that age. Not only that, but Nas continued to be a driving force for hip-hop past that point. Even though I had no idea what hip-hop was in ‘94, Nas was and is still making music. I actually had other Nas albums, or heard them from my older brother before getting my hands on Illmatic. But hearing the beginning of it all changed my perspective forever.
The album had all of the raw, unfiltered, ungroomed elements that made classic hip-hop so great. And 20 years later, that feeling hasn’t changed. It’s an album that can stand the test of time. No matter when or where you listen to it, it brings with it those same amazing feelings each time.