Sleep is the Cousin of Death: Nas’ Illmatic Still Reigns 20 Years Later
Hip Hop has its icons, but one rules over them all: Nasir Jones. Nas came to the forefront of rap in 1994 when he released Illmatic. If this album were Nas’ only work, he would have gone down as the undisputed best rapper of all time. Nas is an American poet; telling more vivid tales in his rhymes than most authors can ever dream of. Quoting from a Nas song is now a staple of contemporary rap, or using one of his ideas for an entire song. Jay-Z, Big Sean, and Drake all borrow from rap’s version of Shakespeare. If Nas can be compared to Shakespeare, then he definitely had his own Hamlet—Illmatic. His later work tarnished his legacy; it felt uninspired and lacking. However, on its 20th birthday, Illmatic shows just why it might be one of the greatest albums of all time.
Nas was New York’s main MC. As he often cites in his music, Nas hails from Queensbridge. He grew up in an incredibly tough neighborhood, with death around every corner. This is the setting for Illmatic: bleak, dark, and ready to die.
For the 20th anniversary, Nas performed with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Obviously, this was a groundbreaking event. Rap and orchestras are two forms of artistic expression that do not usually acknowledge each other. Nas performed some of his greatest hits, including some classics from Illmatic. Check out this video.
For those who have never heard anything from Illmatic before, I will give you the brief introduction that you need…
It’s 1994. New York City was a battleground between the Bloods, Crips, and MS-13. Crack was more prevalent than tobacco on the streets. Just four years earlier, New York had its highest murder rate in its history. Enter Nasir Jones—America’s greatest urban poet.
“NY State of Mind” – The greatest hip hop song of all time. This album can be summarized into this one track. Nas recorded it in one take, minutes after writing it. He begins with “I don’t know how to start this”, because he literally had just wrote it.
“I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
“Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)’”- Who says Nas can’t be sincere? Memory Lane is the Queensbridge’s version of “Graduation”. Nas channels his nostalgia into a poetic ode to change. While one door closes, another one opens in his life journey.
“I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies, and prisoners.”
“The World is Yours”- Money, power, and women. Nas was at the trifecta of the urban American dream. He was on the rise, with no troubles in sight. This song conveys that amazing feeling.
“I’m out for dead presidents to represent me.”
“Halftime”- Nas’ voice bounces along the bumping beat. He is in his pure element here. Every line feels completely natural and timed perfectly. No one can match this delivery. This is Nas’ way of saying “I ain’t done yet.”
“Nasty Nas has to rise cause I'm wise/This is exercise 'til the microphone dies”