Apple Music 100 Best Albums

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Guttural, jazz-heavy hip-hop that defined the NYC sound in the ’90s.

Four tracks into his debut album, Nas told listeners, “The world is yours”—but he was wrong. In fact, the world belonged to Nas himself, a New York rap prodigy hailing from the talent-rich Queensbridge housing projects. And while Illmatic was immediately recognized as a gem by those in the know, its impact on hip-hop at large would only fully be appreciated in the years following.

“There are rhyme schemes on there that most rappers to this day can’t do.”


Nas introduces turns of phrase and perspective previously unheard within the art form: “My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper’s breath/I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps,” he spits on “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” Illmatic’s sample-heavy sound comes courtesy of a dream team of production talent—DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and L.E.S.— a lineup that helped break a long-standing tradition of single-producer hip-hop albums. Together they present a unified vision of the murky, guttural, jazz-heavy hip-hop that would come to define the ’90s New York sound.