When it comes to individual years in Hip-Hop, 1994 is arguably the most important of all because of its potency. By then, the Gangsta Rap genre had begun to exhaust itself and the notoriety of the culture had led many music critics to deny rap itself as a music genre at all. 1994 was different. Hip-Hop gained some validity, due only to the several landmark albums that were released that year: The Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Common’s Resurrection, Method Man’s Tical, Scarface’s The Diary, The Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang, and The Root’s From the Ground Up EP.
But none of these albums had the lasting effect on its listeners–old or new–-that Nas’s Illmatic had that year. The sweet poetry of a self-proclaimed king caught the attention of listeners throughout the country. Reporting live from the tormented apartment houses of Queens Bridge, New York, the twenty-one year-old MC–who once outlandishly rapped that he “went to hell for snuffing (punching) Jesus”–transformed himself into a savior figure, a reputation that still surrounds him and the album today.
Hip-Hop may very well be one of the most misconceived and culturally potent genres in all of music. This is exemplified on the first track of Illmatic. An album’s introduction, if executed properly, should set the tone for what listeners are about to hear. The intro to the album is called The Genesis and it’s the start of something special. To the casual listener, the track is just a bunch of noise; the boisterous sound of a train whizzing through a station under a random snippet from what could be a movie, or a TV show; the muffled yet rhythmic poetry that is nearly inaudible because of everything else going on.
In this innovative merging of poetry and street, Nas tells us everything that he wants us to know about him before diving into the album. The sound of the train represents New York City. The dialogue is a snippet from the 1984 film, Wild Style–the first major picture to focus on Hip-Hop culture. This signals that Nas is an avid fan of the culture and knows its roots, despite being only 10 years-old when the movie was released. The rhythmic poetry, nearly inaudible, is actually also a snippet, this time from Nas’s first ever recorded verse on Live at The BBQ ft. The Main Source.
The song then cuts to what would feel and sound like a summer day in the projects, for those who have been there. Nas and his peers are overheard dabbling about smoking weed, drinking Hennessey, and the struggle of growing up in their cocaine-infested and impoverished environment. “Nas, yo Nas, man sh*t is real out here in the projects” is voiced by one of the most prevalent figures on the track. Here Nas is, once more, methodically giving listeners a taste of his environment without explicitly stating it, all before he kicks a single rhyme. The track continues with conversation of this sort, and is followed by the second track: N.Y. State of Mind.
The album’s most powerful messages are hidden beneath the raw, sometimes vulgar, but always eloquent and sophisticated lyrics. It is the type of project that requires and demands all of the listeners attention in order to become comprehensible, and even then, the audience must be fully immersed to grasp the concepts and poetic riddles that are masked by it’s hip-hop curtains.