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Album Review: Nas – Illmatic XX

3 min read

In his recent memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, Roots drummer and hip-hop historian Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recounts the story of “Hip Hop’s Funeral”. The specific event in question was the 1995 Source Awards ceremony held at Madison Square Garden where the cultural schism between the “haves and have-nots” of urban music reached boiling point. In the months following, this divergence would descend into the horrific gang warfare that would rob the industry of two of its figureheads in Tupac Amaru Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Yet on that fateful May night in New York, Biggie took home the trophy over a then-21-year-old Nasir Jones (clad in oversized Tommy Hilfiger factory-seconds bought with borrowed money) whose Illmatic record exemplified the old-school approach to hip hop for the art, not just the money. However 20 years on, Nas’ timeless chronicle of life on the streets of Queensbridge New York still remains at the pointy end of most “Best Hip Hop Album” lists and this month gets an expanded 20th anniversary reissue as Illmatic XX.

NAS-IllmaticXXThis 2-disc set includes the original 10-track album which was hailed by New York street-press The Village Voice as “The most New York City album ever” featuring production from immortal heavyweight beat-architects DJ Premier, Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip as well as a second disc of remixes, B-sides and an on-air performance on NYC’s WKCR.

Illmatic has always been the little game-changer that could. By the time of its April 1994 release, its potential had already been hindered by extensive bootlegging (and here we were thinking that musicians only started getting screwed with the introduction of file-sharing in the early-‘00s!) and Nas was forced to live in the shadows of bigger, wealthier rap-stars with big budget booty-centric music videos of Alizé-drenched excess. Over the ensuing two decades however, the sentiments on tracks like the intellectually skewed One Time 4 Your Mind, the visceral honesty on Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park) or the self-awareness on It Ain’t Hard To Tell have stood the test of time and been a beacon for people looking for something more than the Drugs/Money/Bitches rhetoric of many of Jones’ contemporaries.

The second disc of Illmatic XX revisits this cornerstone of a thinking-man’s ghetto reportage kicking off with the genuine-article-hip-hop B-side I’m a Villain. Surprisingly this didn’t surface on 2004’s 10th anniversary reissue yet finds a welcome home here a further 10 years down the line. Following on is an amazing free-form 8-minute guest spot on the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show from 1993 before Illmatic’s original release that’s half promo-discussion/half freestyle behind a glorious Grand Wizzard beat. The Butcher remix of first single Halftime is again straight-up unapologetic meat-and-potatoes hip-hop before a soul-inspired remix of It Ain’t Hard To Tell keeps your head well and truly bobbing amidst the haze of Buddha smoke.

The LG Main mix of One Love is pretty loyal to Q-Tip’s stellar production on the original whereas the Arsenal mix of Life’s a Bitch has a little more urgency to it with a closer focus on brass and guitar samples of the ‘70s. After another heavy-hitting take on One Love by One-L, Q-Tip has a crack at The World Is Yours which could almost bang harder than the original just by replacing the kick and snare sounds. Rounding out the collection are the one-two punches of the Chicago-blues/R&B informed Stink remix and jazz-infused “Laidback Remix” of original album closer It Ain’t Hard To Tell.

Overall, Illmatic XX is a great introduction to the other side of hip-hop in the ‘90s. It wasn’t all just Bentleys and bling; some artists rhymed for the love of it and simply just had something to say. You can remix any of these songs however you like and the essence of hip-hop in its purest form still undeniably shines through. That’s what made Illmatic a crucial album 20 years ago and precisely what makes it deserving of a revisit every 10 years to show each new generation coming up what the game of hip-hop is really about.