Nas always had a thing for nostalgia. He is fantastic at remembering past glory, whether it be historical (“I Can”) or his own – which is what this whole album is about. Illmatic XX reflects on where Nas came from, and celebrates the Golden Era in East Coast hip-hop. On the 20th anniversary of Nas’ 1994 debut album, the classic Illmatic, the lyricist (now 40) reminds us how he captured what Queensbridge smelled, felt and tasted like in the early 90’s, when he was just 20 years old. “Whose World Is This?” he raps. Well, his now. For Nas, going back in time has been “rejuvenating.”
Illmatic XX is full of flavor and uptempo remixes. It’s a mixture of cocky yet philosophical poetry, aggressive delivery, live instruments (piano, horns, drums, guitar), and invigorated storytelling of a young black man surviving the concrete jungle of New York. Fans get to relive Nas’ golden legacy; remixes help the album sound fresher, cleaner, fuller.
Besides amping up the energy on remixes, Nas does little to mess with the classic versions. He does, however, include rare photos, liner notes, demos and a freestyle from The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show in 1993. Along with rappers Jungle, Sudan, *69 and Grand Wizard, Nas freestyled before the original Illmatic was released:
“Off the top of my head, yo I’m a blunthead / Police, police want a ni**a dead / But I’m not going out like that black / I kick the actual facts and solar / Cold as a polar / Bear, I swear…”
It’s nursery rhyme stuff like this that makes an artist’s memories interesting. We get to hear “Big Nas’” early swagger (and one could argue hints of his uncertainty) before he blows up. The clip takes listeners straight to the heart of what rap used to be – playful bantering (and bragging) between friends.
On the whole, Nas captures the plight of many trapped black men born in the ghetto (especially on “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”) who use artistry to escape their otherwise-doomed fates. Young Nas is at times the reflective poet, bringing to mind Gill Scott Heron, and at times the NY street-wise hustler, calling in a young Jay Z. Throughout, he struggles with the same dilemma Tupac did: how can one be both a socially progressive intellectual and a stereotyped street thug? Is it possible to be both? For Nas it is, but for many it isn’t. And that’s why “Life’s A B***h” (and then you die). Maybe it’s the sax that makes you feel his bittersweet pain on this cut.
A previously unreleased track is included on the album, “I’m a Villain,” which features Nas snarling “I’m a ni***r” who “keeps killing ‘cause I’m willing”. Not the most enlightened lyric, but his honest expression of feeling like outcast in his own country (a feeling shared by many black men in America) provides insight for the venom. The song doesn’t excite with inflections or musical changes, but it does provide a conviction-laden rap declaration.
To promote the album, Nas released a documentary, Time is Illmatic, which premiered April 16th at the Tribeca Film Festival. “When I made Illmatic, I was trying to make the perfect album,” Nas says in the documentary’s trailer. “It comes from the days of Wild Style. I was trying to make you experience my life. I wanted you to look at hip-hop differently. I wanted you to feel that hip-hop was changing and becoming something more real.”
It’s easy to see why Illmatic has held up for 20 years. The truth and authenticity beneath Nas’ braggadocio, beneath the stories of the tough streets of Queensbridge, makes the album feel as real now as it was then. And that’s why, honestly, in Illmatic XX, Queensbridge now feels like fine wine.