Nas – Illmatic XX

 

When it was released in 1994, Nas’ Illmatic was hailed by critics as a revolutionary album. Nas’ genius wordplay and sublime backing beats gave the album the power to not only be viewed as a masterpiece in its own time, but to be revered as an iconic piece of hip-hop mastery long after its release.

Though initial sales weren’t terrific, Illmatic continued to sell copies over the years through its sheer staying power, and in 2001 it was granted certified platinum status. What separated Nas from other rappers of the time wasn’t his accessibility-seeing as how he was outsold by other, more popular artists of the era- but rather his well-educated, muckraking lyrical style, as well as his raw emotional attachment to the lyrics he spouts. Nas was, and still is, motivated by a genuine desire to see things change for his people. As such, his songs are mostly devoid of the braggadocio that typically characterizes hip-hop. Although few of the other albums Nas has produced have reached the critical appeal that Illmatic did, it remains difficult to find a more talented lyricist.

For the sake of brevity, let me truly begin this review of the twentieth anniversary re-release of the album, Illmatic XX, by saying that you should never presume to judge a legend.

The first half of the album is more or less what you’d expect: A remastered production of the original work. It’s impossible to pick just one track to refer to when writing about this album, as every single one remains just as powerful as it was when it was released twenty years ago. “Halftime” is just as funky and original, and “The World Is Yours” is every bit as moving and poignant. It isn’t until you begin the second half of the release that things become fresh.

The second disc begins with “I’m a Villain,” a previously unreleased track that shows what Nas is capable of when he doesn’t limit himself to esoteric references and politically motivated rhymes. While it isn’t entirely devoid of these, it centers itself around some chest thumping verses, and is backed by a loop of an altogether sweet bass line. The real centerpiece of the release it what follows, though: A recording of a live radio freestyle that Nas performed almost six months before the release of Illmatic. Not only does this track further showcase Nas’ lyrical genius, but it offers a candid insight into his life before fame brought him to the spotlight.

From that point on, there are a solid number of remixes of the more popular songs on the album, and even here it’s difficult to pick just a few to point to as the best. It would seem that after twenty years, there were quite a few remixes to choose from, and it’s readily apparent after just one listen that only the cream of the crop were selected. LG’s remix of “One Love” adds a melodic reimagining of the track to the beat, and Tip’s remix of “The World Is Yours” not only adds a great percussive track and a perfect choral chant to the background, but it would also seem that it utilizes a different take of Nas’ original delivery.

More than anything else, the re-release of Illmatic is a refreshing reminder of what Nas is truly capable of. As I mentioned earlier, no other album that he has released since has had quite the power that his initial release did, though we have had occasional sparks of intensity from each. Still, until Nas knocks himself down a few levels from his self-imposed pedestal and releases a greatest hits compilation, this will more than do for no

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