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​Photos by gie Knaeps and Brett Carlsen/Getty Images for Live Nation. Photo illustration by Srikar Poruri for Okayplayer.

Nas performs at The Fox Theater on October 19, 2014 in Oakland, California.

Photos by gie Knaeps and Brett Carlsen/Getty Images for Live Nation. Photo illustration by Srikar Poruri for Okayplayer.

Celebrating 30 Years of Illmatic

Celebrate 30 years of Illmatic with a trip back to the album that put Queensbridge rapper Nas in the upper echelon.

On this day, 30 years ago, a 20-year-old kid from Queens changed hip-hop forever. Regarded as foundational to the genre (and music, period), Nas’salbum Illmatic is everything you want in a rap album. Nas has a one-of-one voice, elite technical skill, vivid imagery, and a great sense of atmosphere; every song feels like you’re there with him on that Queensbridge project bench. Illmatic put Nas on the map in 1994 and still stands tall in 2024.

Nas - It Ain't Hard to Tell (Official HD Video)

Nas came into prominence at just the right time. Known around NYC as a talented teen through his appearance on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” in 1991 and his song “Halftime” in 1992, he was a known commodity. At the time, a debut album was a proving ground of sorts for a new rapper, so it was key that it hit all the right notes. Under the guidance of MC Serch, Nas set out to create a classic, making magic with legends like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip on the boards. Nas’s ability to deliver under immense pressure (he was referred to as the next Rakim) is of note; he had big expectations and surpassed them with Illmatic.

Nas - Halftime (Official Video - Explicit)

Everyone’s reasons for loving Illmatic are different, but what remains consistent in the critiques is how Nas brings you into his world. Life in the projects is difficult, and Nas was poetic in his descriptions of Queensbridge and what he saw beyond it. On “N.Y. State Of Mind,” Nas rhymes “Be havin' dreams that I'm a gangsta, drinkin' Moëts, holdin' TEC's / Makin' sure the cash came correct, then I stepped / Investments in stocks, sewin' up the blocks to sell rocks / Winnin' gunfights with mega-cops.” In the next line, he returns to his reality as a low-level local hustler. “But just a nigga walkin' with his finger on the trigger / Make enough figures until my pockets get bigger.” In just a few bars, Nas explained the trappings of the street that he aspires to, then came clean about who he is. He was just a young man with a gift, who was trying to find his way. It showed in the music, and his path led to him being one of the most important artists of all time.

Nas - N.Y. State of Mind (Official Audio)

Nas, to this day, is a deeply introspective rapper who is very aware of the world around him. As crazy and crime-ridden as 1990s New York City was, knowledge of self and your environment was a means of survival. “Life’s A Bitch,” a classic song on an album packed with them, features Nas and AZ facing the reality of the streets from similar but different ends. AZ expresses distaste for the importance of getting money in our world, while also acknowledging he’s focused on getting to it. Nas’s verse is almost like an on-wax epiphany; he did what he had to do in the street, but understands better things await if he remains hopeful in the future. The song is beautiful and puts all of Nas’ skills alongside another elite rapper.

Nas - Life's a Bitch (Official Audio) ft. AZ, Olu

Now 30 years old, Illmatic is worth the listen today, and every day. Nas created an album that is looked at as a true definition of hip-hop, an immovable tribute to the genre’s past, present, and future. Happy birthday to Illmatic.