Illmatic and the Concept of Legacy

Celebrating the anniversary of an iconic album in the disposable culture

It is the 20th anniversary of Illmatic and there are celebrations and think pieces dedicated to it everywhere, from NahRight to The Wall Street Journal.

This is fascinating because an LP from 1994 that was largely overlooked in 1994 is being celebrated in 2014 as tons of great LPs from 2014 are being overlooked.

We have entered the disposable culture. People get their music for free, watch movies at home, and read everything on their phones while doing something else (usually driving).

So why has Illmatic captured both the attention and the imagination of a generation and a culture that forgets everything ten minutes after it debuts? People want to feel like they’re part of something special and historic, even in retrospect.

Most hip-hop heads, even those that know the history of the genre and can tell you obscure facts and trivia, were late on Illmatic. In 1994, it was all about Wu-Tang and Snoop and Bad Boy. Nas was beloved in the underground on the streets of NYC, but most people outside the five boroughs knew little about him.

Two years later, when he had one of the biggest songs of the year and a double platinum plaque on his wall, people began revisiting his debut. “It’s different, but it’s really good,” they said. Still, it was overlooked. In its 100th issue, The Source named Illmatic “the most underrated hip-hop album in history,” and said that it was time to face facts and call it a classic.

How things have changed.

Everyone, both the biggest Nas fans and his biggest detractors, agree that Illmatic is an undisputed classic and one of the greatest hip-hop albums in history. Claiming otherwise would make you seem foolish. Even Jay-Z, who once claimed to have ejaculated on Nas’s daughter’s car seat, admitted that Illmatic would be one of his five “desert album” choices.

The irony in all of this? Nas is often criticized for never living up to the standards he set on Illmatic, but he has admitted that he made a conscious choice to make more radio-friendly records because of the attention The Notorious B.I.G. received for Ready to Die. (Questlove supports this in a fantastic Pitchfork interview.)

How many people can claim they bought Illmatic when it was released in April of 1994? I can’t. I know of one person that purchased it in the spring of ‘94. That was fine back then, but now everyone needs to be first. It doesn’t matter if they’re right.

The same people that write “First!” in a comments section are the people that go on Twitter and say every new album is a classic before even listening to a single song. If they say it enough times, maybe it will turn out to be true.

In a disposable culture, people need to feel that they’re part of something special, something that will last. That’s why Illmatic is far more celebrated in 2014 than it was 1994, even if Nas is no longer seen as the messiah of the microphone.

Everyone wants to feel like they were part of something historic. Even if it’s revisionist history.

Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books, all of which are available in paperback and Kindle. In addition to his own site, his work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.