The Emotional Center
The enthusiastic reception to Illmatic was never really in question. For many, the album's impeccable artistry served as a welcome reminder that, despite the success of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Death Row Records, New York wasn't quite ready relinquish its status as hip hop's undisputed epicenter. The linchpin release in a Rotten Apple reality rhyme movement spearheaded by Wu-Tang Clan and Black Moon the previous fall, it would pave the way for similarly hailed streets-centric treatises from Biggie, Mobb Deep, Raekwon and others that followed.
It just came in right at the right time…It was uplifting. It was painful. The impact was crazy in New York. - Large Professor
Most crucially on a critical level, the album received a rarely issued "5 mic" review rating from The Source – hip hop's reigning national publication at the time. For the review's author, journalist Minya Oh, aka Miss Info (then writing under the pseudonym “Shortie”), measuring Illmatic's qualifications as a masterpiece was the subject of elaborate deliberation and internal debate. "5 mics" meant perfection. The weight behind the magazine's co-signage was immense. For Nas, it was a coronation he couldn't quite believe happened even as it was taking place.
When 5 mics came in The Source that was equivalent to going five times platinum in the street. 5 mics was more than sales, it was set in stone. And I was like, 'wow, this is happening. This is beautiful.' - Nas
As generally lauded as Illmatic was upon release, a case can be made that it's actually aged even better over time. Illmatic's brevity now simply sounds airtight – a succinct showcase for a prodigious talent. Nas at 20 was already a remarkably weathered narrator. Where your color-by-numbers gangsta rapper boasted of inflated body counts and drug kingpin riches, Nas admits to only having dreams of being a gangster before waking up to the reality of his far less flashy surroundings.
The consummate vehicle for Illmatic's all-seeing perspective, "One Love" takes the ingenious form of a letter to an incarcerated friend, then recounts a discussion with a 12-year-old hustler so cinematic, it was recreated on film twice (once by director Fab 5 Freddy for the song's music video, and then by Hype Williams in the motion picture Belly). It's no coincidence then that within the canon of mid-'90s New York rap classics, Illmatic remains the most emotionally centered of the lot.
Ironically, this may have hurt its commercial prospects. Illmatic sold well, going gold within a year despite rampant bootlegging, but claimed no huge breakout crossover hits, its gifts perhaps not so easily distilled into non-NYC club-friendly 3-minute packages. Such industry metrics, though, could never adequately summarize its legacy. That's probably best left to the listeners and artists it continues to inspire two decades on with the purity of its creative vision.
'Illmatic' talked about every element of young life in the streets. And you can relate to that in Compton, you can relate to that in Chicago, you can relate to that in Oakland. It was me being that guy – the hustler, the young man who has a dream to get out this neighborhood. - Nas