"Illmatic" At 20, Nas At 40

by Adam Plunkett

Like this is Nas, who became famous with his second album, in 1996, but who made his name with his first album, “Illmatic,” twenty years ago, and likes to rap about how he still looks like the twenty-year-old who made it. He does, even though he’s twenty years removed from the life he made his masterpiece out of, his portrait of the artist as a young man in the Queensbridge housing projects in Long Island City that he loved and feared and resented. He rapped his way out of them as he enshrined them; he got what he wished for. But despite a beautiful song here and there, and no matter how well his albums have sold, he hasn’t made any remotely as good as “Illmatic.” His art made him the person he wanted to be, which made him unable to make that kind of art anymore.

Nas calls the album a novel. I’d say epic poem. Anyone can see the incredible density and precision of the language, but you probably have to listen to it to feel its range and depth of emotion. When he says, on the second verse of “Life’s a Bitch,” “I woke up early on my born day; I’m twenty, it’s a blessing/The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh and/My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it/One quarter through life some Godly-like thing created,” it’s so powerful because of all he leaves out. He’s assured where AZ was anxious on the first verse, awed where AZ was dejected, but he evokes the feelings of promise and power so well because he never loses hold of their opposites. His birthday would’ve felt like less of a blessing if it hadn’t been for the curses of all his friends’ deaths (“I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it,” says AZ). He’d have felt less like “some Godly-like thing created” if he didn’t also feel, as AZ says, “that something must have got in us cause all of us turned to sinners.” “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” as the chorus goes, and Nas wouldn’t have had to celebrate his “physical frame” if he’d been sure he had a soul. When Nas says the last chorus, “Life’s a bitch and then you die/That’s why we get high/Cause you never know when you’re gonna go,” it isn’t shallow nihilism but hope that can’t sustain itself, as well as Nas acting hard while his dad plays a melancholy riff on the cornet.

Nas has written about the pressure he felt to hide his intelligence. What “Illmatic” hides is his vulnerability, the soft emotions beneath the hard surface. You feel his emotions even though he hardly emotes, and this tension made his reputation. But fame cost him the pressure to hide himself as it afforded him a life he was much less conflicted about. This is as good for his life as it’s bad for his art: it takes away his act with his material. The title of his latest album says it all with its simple, simply put happiness. “Life Is Good,” but the music is not.

There are plenty of rappers who get better with fame. Nas just isn’t one of them. I’m sure he had plenty of fun with wealth and fame, but his music never lets you have fun with them. He hasn’t made a single good party song. (I’m not sure he tried, unless you count “Oochie Wally.”) He doesn’t make you want to be him, even if you want to listen to him or even talk like him. You want to be someone if they’re cool, and his best later music is too angry or sad or ostentatiously impressive to be cool. Some rappers get around this with aliases and personae, who have more fun with blunts and broads than the rappers actually do in their spare time. Nas has a genius for personae only when they’re angry or sad — his girl equivalent Scarlett, a gun — but tends to embarrass himself when they try to be cool, like Escobar the gangster. He’s infinitely less convincing as Tony Montana than as the guy who wants to be Tony Montana. Just listen to “The Firm,” a group album from 1997 about a mob family that no one seems to have believed in besides its members and Dr. Dre, its producer. To laugh at Nas trying both to flash wealth and to inhabit a persona, watch the video for “Hate Me Now,” in which he alternately raps as “God’s Son” from the cross at Golgotha (while the heathens stone him) and looks like a rather effeminate fluffy snowman in the club with Puff Daddy.

No matter how popular Nas got, he was never a good pop musician. He’s too real. He has to draw on his own inner conflicts. He has shockingly little instinct for branding himself, and in this way is a perfect study in contrasts with that other living legend from early ’90s hip-hop in New York: Jay-Z, that walking advertisement for himself.

Hova not only made a wildly successful career as a businessman but made it out of the fact of his being a businessman. (“I’m a business, man.”) When he hustles, he’s a hustler, baby. It isn’t crass capitalism but the American dream. With Obama on speed dial, a perfect wife who sings about how perfect they are, and a book that, as predicted in “Money, Cash, Hoes,” was a bestseller, Jay-Z has to be more ensconced in the power structure than any other entertainer in America. He personifies success to more or less everyone. It’s hard not to want to be him.

Nas agitates where Hova ingratiates. Where Jay saw himself as a business when he was still just an artist, Nas never fully shed the anti-authoritarianism that goes back to his verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” from 1991: “Nasty Nas is a rebel to America.” (In 2004, he named a whole album, “Street’s Disciple,” after the start of that verse.) While Jay was making hip-hop into even bigger business, Nas was telling everyone why “Hip Hop Is Dead” (on a label Jay signed him to). While Jay was pushing hip-hop further into the power structure, stripping away whatever shred of embarrassment white and powerful people might have had about identifying with hip-hop, Nas made a brutal album about structural racism and tried to call it “Nigger.” He’s turbulent to Jay’s cavalier, flawed to Jay’s flawless. His wife left him. He’s been bad — possibly real bad — with his money. His latest venture into mogulhood is a sneaker store… in Las Vegas. (The latest news on that was a month ago, when it apparently began hiring.) His albums still have shoutouts to everyone “trapped in the nineties.”

Is it any wonder that they feuded so bitterly at the turn of the century, even after Jay’s mom made him stop? The self-promotional genius and the man whose genius seems to extend to everything besides self-promotion, both of them in New York, the one a force of commerce and the other, in his words, a representative of “the art side of hip-hop” — of course they’d clash. That’s why it was hard not to see some mixed motives when Jay invited Nas to perform with him at Carnegie Hall. It was 2012, years after they’d publicly reconciled. But it was Jay’s coronation, Jay’s sold-out show with an orchestra and seats running at least $5000 a head. He was the king of New York. After his mega-hit “Empire State of Mind,” he brought on Nas for “Illmatic”’s “New York State of Mind,” as well as “If I Ruled the World” from two years later. Yet it was clear which of the two men in bowties and evening clothes with sunglasses ruled the world, which of them thought like an emperor rather than just a New Yorker. Nas could have hardly looked happier. But is it any wonder that he wanted to follow Jay’s orchestral concert with a rather different one of his own?

The show was a setting of “Illmatic” for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center this past Friday and Saturday. It was the album’s anniversary — almost twenty years to the day — and tickets sold out quickly, though not for $5000. The concert hall was nearly full when I walked in fifteen minutes before the show on Friday evening. At just after eight, the conductor strode onstage and faced the orchestra, flanked by a drum set and a DJ and an acoustic bass. The overture was short, with long strings, light drums, and dark blue lights that went red when Nas entered stage right.

“D.C. So good to be here tonight with you. This feels good right here. You look good out there. Twenty years in the making.” The overture stopped. “What was I thinking. 1992. I was just trying to get in the rap game. The incredible rap game. It was all a dream.” And there he was onstage at the Kennedy Center in bowtied evening wear with sunglasses, telling us how he waited for his time to come. “And when that time came, I took it.” He clenched his fist at his side as the strings took up “New York State of Mind.”

They played the bass line faithfully. It wasn’t ostentatious or weird. Even if the NSO and “Illmatic” are worlds apart culturally, the album’s production is so spare that it’s easy to emulate musically, and the orchestra delivered the plodding, restless line that Nas flows over like a torrent even if it’s more menacing on the album. Nas skipped the introduction, but I doubt anyone in the crowd couldn’t yell it by heart. “You’re sitting at home doing this shit? … Stop fuckin’ around and be a man.” The music got louder as he got to the chorus, and the DJ started scratching at the end. He held his right fist across his chest and bowed his head as the music went silent again.

He told us about the small room in a small apartment on the fifth floor where he spent his time writing the album. “Teenage minds is wild…. That was life.” It was at this point that I realized the absolute difference between the kid who wrote the album and the man performing a version of it here. His mind wasn’t there anymore. And the narration, the formalwear, the whole ceremony of making something classical out of a classic — it honored the album as it made it clear for everyone to see that past was past.

We all sang the chorus to “Life’s a Bitch.” He said it by himself at the end and said, “That’s some real shit, right?” (Right.) “Shoutout to my father, Olu Dara. This is that horn part he wrote.”

The concert went off-script. He rapped parts of a few songs off his second album, and the crowd, most of whose members had been seated in observance of orchestral pieties, got up and got down to the recording of Lauryn Hill’s chorus in “If I Ruled the World.” Most of the show was a compromise: we danced in our respective seats.

He changed a few words here and there — most, I thought, from conscientiousness. “I miss Mr. Magic,/Versatile, my style switches like a faggot,” from “Halftime,” became “I miss Mr. Magic,/Rest in peace, Mr. Magic.” He cut a few uses of “nigger.” “He got a big cheer when he switched out “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” in “The World Is Yours” for “I’m out for President Barack Obama to represent me.”

He said a few words during halftime. “That was a time” — the early nineties — “when the climate of the world was real harsh…. The music represented that harshness. But today I’ve grown. I’m a little bit more refined. I’m still hood, though.” That got a small cheer. “I listen to Miles, Coltrane….. And I’m intrigued by Bach and Beethoven and all that.” That got a big cheer, and he rapped “I Can” (from 2002), with its sample of Beethoven.

The mood shifted with “Memory Lane,” as it does on the album. He sat on a stool and rapped softly, at almost a whisper, at which point I was grateful beyond belief that the acoustics were good enough and the instruments were soft enough that you could hear every syllable. Rap shows are usually parties, and this was closer to poetry.

Things got a bit out of order. (After all, it had been twenty years.) He rapped “One Time 4 Your Mind” before “One Love” and said, “They call me Nas, I’m not your legal type of fella” two songs early. He laughed and came in on the verse again. He rapped “Hate Me Now,” an interpolation, and ended by saying, “You can love me now, baby,” with a smile.

“Thank you for giving me twenty years in your ears,” he said. “We now conclude with the final song of ‘Illmatic.’ That was the end of the cassette…. This is my track because I was a big Michael Jackson fan.” We learned that the iconic picture on the front of “Illmatic” of vaguely toddler-age Nas with a mean mug and an afro was inspired by Michael Jackson. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” he said. “If you were there with me in ’94, make some noise,” and everyone did. “I love you for that.”

He played the last song. He bowed deeply. He thanked us “for keeping ‘Illmatic’ alive through the years. I’ll love you forever.” He walked out to “Could This Be Love?”

The lights went on, but most of us were dancing. A number of people walked out in the aisle toward the exit until the DJ told us to stay, and Nas came back a few minutes later with his bowtie untied. Everyone walked down to the stage: there was no more orchestra to respect, and we were up anyway. It felt like a normal hip-hop concert, with no one worried about keeping their hands down. The ushers, in their red blazers, were anxious to keep everyone from getting too close to the stage, but I couldn’t see why. No one was disorderly or even especially young. I looked back at the rest of the crowd and wondered whether I could take a good picture of the breathless glow on everyone’s faces as they watched Nas sit on a stool and tell us that he only needs one mic and one pen and that the time is now.

Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.