Twenty years later, as we again journey through the valley-less peaks that make up Illmatic, Nas’ rebellion and discordance are still entirely palpable – maybe just as distinct as the first time we bumped the album. Illmatic is a vivid, pictorial presentation of Nas’ upbringing in the Queensbridge Housing Projects, where his narrative exists in the deconstruction of his upbringing, and in his recollections of himself, his people and his borough.
Throughout the album, Nas presents us with his internal struggle, a dichotomy between his mindful, rebellious nature and his tendencies to act like just another unruly youth. Tracks like “Life’s a Bitch”, “N.Y. State of Mind” and “One Love” were direct addresses to the innumerable young men in a similar position as him, creating a shared understanding of their struggle; his ability to careen between grief, happiness, disappointment and braggadocio only solidified this understanding. With Illmatic, Nas invites you into a boundless interchange of acceptance, suffocation and optimism.
As the album shifts from its ten original records to the bonus songs, we are first presented with the previously unreleased track, “I’m A Villain” (some of the lyrics even appear on other songs on the album). The second verse contains the most striking imagery, where Nas affirms the government’s rejection of black communities, and where he resists to conform to a life of violence and crime: “I got beef with the President and still lovin’ it / Trying to make plans to overthrow the government / It won’t work cause n***as don’t believe enough / They’d rather stand on the corners and receive a cuff / Around they wrist, you don’t like the sound of this / Rebel, but my country doesn’t want me / They’d rather hunt me, but you’ll never catch us all.” “I’m A Villain” seems to be an extension of Nas’ narrative from Illmatic, reminding us that perhaps our societal and racial relations haven’t progressed all that much in the past 20 years.
The addition of Nas’ previously unreleased freestyle from his Oct. 28, 1993 appearance on “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” is a brilliant move, as we listen to Nas promote Illmatic and rap over one of Stretch’s beats. The freestyle allows us to coexist in a real moment with Nas, before he was widely known.
The remixes, while sonically pleasing, detract from the songs’ original content and tone. The three versions of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” seem less harmful to the original’s point of view—after all, it is basically a salute to Nas’ rapping prowess. However, they are still rather surprising mixes, all three punctuated by guitars and brass-like instruments instead of the soft sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”. More trumpets can be heard on the upbeat “Arsenal Mix” of “Life’s a Bitch”, warping the song’s purposefully existential outcry; and on the same note, the slower, harmonic tempo on the “One Love [LG Main Mix]” also distorts Nas’ intentions for the initial version, undermining the raw profundity of the “One Love”‘s letter format.
Though the alternate versions are a welcome gesture for the reissue of such a momentous album, the remixes might leave diehard Illmatic fans longing for the original cuts. That being said, an outright dismissal of the remixes might be delusional, because well…it’s Illmatic. Overall, the reissue doesn’t minimize the album’s importance to hip-hop culture—regardless of the form, Illmatic will always remain saturated with an unprecedented lyrical and musical energy that marks a critical moment in rap. Nas’ honesty is a constant reminder that he really was ahead of his time, that he alone emboldened his rapping peers to push the boundaries of their wordplay. I don’t believe anyone can disagree that hip-hop wouldn’t possess the cultural impact that it has today without Illmatic; and for that, Nas’ reimagined songs are welcome in my book.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Illmatic XX on Amazon.