1994 was a big year for music. It was an even bigger year for hip hop. In April of 1994, an American hip-hop artist by the name of Nas released his debut album Illmatic. Released on Columbia Records, Nas was the latest edition to the East Coast hip-hop scene, joining the ranks of established group Wu- Tang -Clan and upcoming artist Notorious B.I.G, Nas brought a lyrical and innovative thread to the storytelling narrative of rap at the time.
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Supported by singles such as “Halftime”, “It Aint Hard To Tell”, and “One Love”, the then-2o year old New York native emerged as a one of the most prolific rappers of his time. Marcus Willis outlines in his 2019 Albumnism article, “…unlike rappers who relied on tongue twisting, shouting, or sing-songyflows to make waves, Nas used the fluidity of his natural voice to bring his rhyme books to life…” At a time when hip hop itself was transitioning culturally, Illmatic became- and still remains- one of the most lyrically thought-provoking albums in hip hop. “…Nas’ exceptionally extensive vocabulary and expressive eloquence were perhaps even more remarkable coming from an 18-20-year-old ninth-grade dropout…but Nas’ story and the narratives told on this album are those of countless Black and Latino children with infinite potential who are born under systemic oppression into neighborhoods that dare them to survive, cops who threaten their existence, and schools that crush their imaginations.”
Storytelling has always been a theme amongst the Black community. From passing down fables and folk tales from generation to generation to the use of poetry and song throughout the many sagas of Black history from slavery to Reconstruction to even #BlackLivesMatter. Nas’ Illmatic is a shining example of how storytelling transformed hip-hop at the time. As hip-hop as grown and made its way into the mainstream, other contemporaries who are widely seen as the beneficiaries of such a phenomenon- Grammy award winning rappers Common and Kendrick Lamar- owe much of their success to what Nas was able to accomplish twenty-five years ago- a organic and visual form of rap.
Nas would go on to work with several hip-hop and R&B artists such as Lauryn Hill and Mary J Blige to even pop artists such as Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez. The 43-year-oldeleven-time Grammy nominee has continued to be a classic influence amongst hip-hop lovers. Certainly, he was not the first hip-hop artist to incorporate storytelling into his craft, but it is safe to say he is one of the first that comes to mind.