The son of musical explorer Olu Dara, Nasir Jones — briefly known as Nasty Nas and also sometimes Nas Escobar — is a thoughtful and culturally ambitious rapper from New York City’s Queensbridge projects. He calmly piles on the internal rhymes in the fast-flowing but brief Illmatic, an uncommon and impressive debut that flashes intelligence, pot, civic pride — and bits of anti-Semitism and homophobia. In “N.Y. State of Mind” (not the Billy Joel anthem), Nas evenly chronicles a gunplay incident; he claims a hustler past in “Life’s a Bitch.” In the same song, he offers up this irrefutable bit of pragmatic philosophy: “Life’s a bitch and then you die/That’s why we get high/’Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” The MC’s imaginative tracks were produced by some of New York’s finest: DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and the Large Professor (who gave Nas his first break, having him rap on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque”). Illmatic dresses a solid rhythmic backbone in fascinating embellishments: piano arpeggios running through “The World Is Yours,” horns blurting all over “Halftime,” Hammond organ in “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park),” xylophone and string bass in “One Love” (no Marley connection here), the ghostly vocals and subliminal brass in “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” Nasty? Nah. Nas.
For all the critical acclaim earned by Illmatic, the debut offered no clear indication that Nas was poised on the brink of major stardom. Released in July ’96, It Was Written — boasting a notable bi-coastal collaboration with Dr. Dre and contributions from Lauryn Hill and others — exploded out of the proverbial box and bombed in at the top of the pop album charts.