Tomorrow, April 19, is the 20 year anniversary of one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time, Nasir Jones's classic debut, Illmatic. From the moment it was released on that fateful day in 1994, all the way up to the present day, the influence the album has had on hip-hop culture has been absolutely immense. Countless artists, young and old, have referenced the album in their songs. In honor of the 20 year anniversary of Illmatic, we've compiled the 20 best songs that reference the album. It ain't hard to tell. —Marvin Jules
AZ, “Love Me”
Producer: DR Period
Album: 9 Lives
Lyric: “Since Illmatic, this shit started then never departed/I flossed retarded for those lost in the projects/I taught them logic gaining courses in college/Chased dollars but to me what's most important is knowledge”
Why It’s Dope: AZ got his big break in the game from his verse on “Life’s A Bitch” off of Illmatic. His acknowledgement of the fact that his success came off that verse is dope in itself, but his conviction to the ethos he laid out in the original seems a little out of whack.
Big Sean, “First Chain”
Producer: No ID
Album: Hall Of Fame
Lyric: “Big was the first one that had it/Then I saw Nas' chain, man, that was Illmatic/Then I saw Kanye's hanging from his gold necklace/Then 'Ye gave me mine, that show you my work ethic”
Why It’s Dope: Using the name of Nas’s album to describe Nas’s chain when he saw it was a rare moment of high-level wordplay. What makes it even better is that Nas himself hops onto the song on the next verse, validating Sean's hustle.
Blu, “Growing Pains”
Album: Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them
Lyric: "Always told me use my mind, the world is your canvas/Moved in '94, the same year as Illmatic/Then back to the block with John in elastic/The way he lost his life in that car it was tragic"
Why It’s Dope: This line is dope because it shows how the album works as a time watermark of sorts. Using Illmatic as a representation of the year 1994 out of any other album, movie, or anything else he could have chosen shows the impact the album had in that year, and following years.
Casey Veggies, ”DTA”
Producer: Wolf Haley
Mixtape: Sleepin In Class
Lyric: “Jordans and the gold chain, Illmatic bumpin'/Nas did it first and now I'm 'bout to tell 'em somethin'”
Why It’s Dope: This line is dope because it shows how timeless Illmatic is. Casey was only 9 months old when Illmatic came out in 1994. There aren’t many albums you can bump 20 years later and have it sounding like it just came out yesterday. Illmatic is one of those albums.
Cormega, "Poetry”Producer: N/A
Lyric: “Nasty Nas all ya life you praised me/Your daughter might be Jay Z's/Illmatic was real 'cause you was tryin' to portray me/Matter of fact, time for Sony to pay me”
Why It’s Dope: Cormega and Nas, embroiled in a beef at the time, took shots at each other on a variety of songs during the early and mid 2000s. This was one of the most notable, with Cormega claiming that Nas was trying to portray Cormega’s life, not his own. The entire track winds up a little...vicious; this particular line also works in a series of references to Jay's "Takeover."
Eminem, “Careful What You Wish For”
Lyric: “The Marshall Mathers was a classic, The Eminem Show was fantastic/But Encore just didn't have the caliber to match it/I guess enough time just ain't passed yet/A couple more years that shit'll be Illmatic”
Why It’s Dope: Eminem is talking about how his albums are rated by critics. He knows that his previous albums have been rated high, but critics weren’t as generous with his Encore album. What Eminem is saying here, though, is that after some time, when critics go back to re-rate it, they will rate it on the same level as Illmatic, which is synonymous of a classic. It’s safe to say though, even after a few years since rapping that line, Encore isn’t in the same stratosphere as Illmatic.
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French Montana, “Hip-Hop”
Producer: Shawdi P
Mixtape: Mac & Cheese 3
Lyric: “One love, One love/I'm talkin' Nas Illmatic with my semi-automatic”
Why It’s Dope: French plays no games. When it comes to his semi-automatic, French will hit you hard, the same way Illmatic hit the game hard when it came out back in 1994. Dope reference from one NY artist to another.
G-Eazy, “Reefer Madness”
Mixtape: The Endless Summer
Lyric: “Can recite Illmatic in its entirety/'Cause growing up that album definitely inspired me”
Why It’s Dope: Music knows no boundaries, it transcends gender, religion, and race. The fact that a black inner-city youth from Queensbridge created an album that could influence a young G-Eazy growing up on the opposites side of the country can be a beautiful thing at times. This entire track is an ode to Illmatic's "Halftime."
Jay Z, “A Star Is Born”
Producer: Kanye West, Ke’noe and No I.D
Album: The Blueprint 3
Lyric: “I had the Illmatic on bootleg/The shit was so ahead, thought we was all dead”
Why It’s Dope: Again, Jay paying homage to the classic by Nas. Jay having Illmatic on bootleg, and after listening to it, realizing that he completely changed the rap game with that record offers a glimpse into what the general consensus was when that album dropped in 1994; this was a complete game changer.
Vic Mensa, “Orange Soda”
Lyric: “My youth's unfolding before me/Be 20 before I know it/I'm trying to write my Illmatic/Get TV's that's panoramic”
Why It’s Dope: Again, young guys paying homage to a classic. Vic is telling the listener that he’s trying to make a classic, to the tune of Illmatic. It’s always dope when the younger generation of artists can respect the people that came before them.
50 Cent, “Fuck You”
Producer: Clark Kent
Mixtape: Guess Who’s Back
Lyric: “I been gone through static, shot at with automatics/Since '90, when Nas came out with Illmatic"
Why It’s Dope: 50 Cent’s diss track to Styles P was definitely direct. This is dope because 50 uses Illmatic as a bookmark of sorts, telling the listener how long he’s really been in the game; he also samples Nas' voice on the hook.
Childish Gambino, “Hero”
Producer: Childish Gambino & Ludwig Göransson
Lyric: “Barf on the track, be amazing and rap-furious/Damn bloggers argue on whether or not I'm serious/It's Nas' Illmatic not Eddie Murphy's Delirious”
Why It’s Dope: Childish is showing us here that he wants to be taken seriously as a rapper, not some gimmick. Him comparing his work to Illmatic shows us how serious he is about the rap game, and not wanting to be viewed as a joke, hence the Eddie Murphy Delirious reference.
Showbiz And AG, “Here And Now”
Album: Mugshot Music
Lyric: “Running with cheetahs, raised with hyenas/Pen is Illmatic like my homie from Queensbridge”
Why It’s Dope: Obviously paying homage to Nas, this is dope because it shows that rappers today continue to use Illmatic as the benchmark for their art.
The Game, “The Documentary”
Producer: Jeff Bhasker
Album: The Documentary
Lyric: “I'm Ready To Die without a Reasonable Doubt/Smoke Chronic and hit it Doggystyle before I go out/Until they sign my Death Certificate, All Eyez On Me/I'm still at it, Illmatic, and that's The Documentary”
Why It’s Dope: Game’s hook on this song is very clever wordplay that includes a series of classic hip-hop albums. What is interesting to note is that Biggie’s Ready To Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Nas’s Illmatic are the only 3 albums made by East Coast artists he mentions in the verse. Coming from a West Coast artist, that is one of the highest forms of respect.
Immortal Technique, “Diabolical”
Producer: 44 Caliber
Album: Revolutionary Vol. 1
Lyric: “Chemically bomb you, fuck using a chrome piece/I'm Illmatic, you won't make it home like Jerome's niece”
Why It’s Dope: Immortal Technique incorporates a line from “One Love” off of Illmatic in his verse. Nas said in “One Love”: “But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?/Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach.” Nas mentions it as part of a sad street tale; Immortal Technique is saying that if you mess around with him, you’ll end up dead. Metaphorically of course.
J Cole, “Villematic”
Mixtape: Friday Night Lights
Lyric: “It’s the feeling in the air you 'bout to drop a real classic/He said, 'Cole, A lil' birdy told me on the low you got an Illmatic/Nobody touching Nas nigga it’s more like Villematic'
Why It’s Dope: Somebody came up to Cole telling him that the album he was about to drop could become the next Illmatic. Cole, having mad respect for Nas, told him that it wouldn’t be as good as Nas’s joint, but by calling it “Villematic,” the Fayetteville spitter might make a project comparable to Nas’ classic.
Joey Bada$$, “World Domination”
Producer: MF Doom
Lyric: “But fuck it, I'm erratic, momma lock me in the attic please/'Til I draw enough static in my somatic anatomy/And come out imputed with fusions of Blueprints and Illmatics/I’ve been going raw, this just how I feel rappin'”
Why It’s Dope: Joey goes in on this MF DOOM-produced track, feeling confident enough to say that his work is a fusion of two of the most revered albums in hip-hop history, The Blueprint and Illmatic.
Odd Future, "Snow White"
Rapper: Hodgy Beats
Producer: Left Brain
Mixtape: The OF Tape Vol 2
Lyric: "Gold chain and some J's like Nas in Illmatic/I’m so real, I’m something to feel, peel fabric”
Why It's Dope: This line is actually an interpolation of a line off of “Street Dreams” off of It Was Written, but refers to the way Nas was rolling in the Illmatic era, like a lot of other people in the early 1990s: with some Jordan’s and a gold chain. Dope.
Jay Z, “Takeover”
Producer: Kanye West
Album: The Blueprint
Lyric: “You said you've been in this 10, I've been in it 5/Smarten up, Nas/Four albums in 10 years, nigga? I could divide/That's one every, let's say 2/Two of them shits was doo/One was "nah," the other was Illmatic/That's a one hot album every 10 year average"
Why It’s Dope: You didn’t think we were going to leave this off the list, did you? Perhaps the most notorious reference to Nas’ classic on this list, this line is particularly wild because it is a part of one of the greatest diss tracks in the history of hip-hop, and perhaps the greatest unintended show of respect in hip-hop history. If a dude you’re beefing with acknowledges that the album is hot, it must be hot.
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Kanye West, “We Major”
Producer: Jon Brion, Kanye West & Warryn Campbell
Album: Late Registration
Lyric: “At the studio console, asked my man to the right/What this verse sound like, should I freestyle or write?/He said, 'Nas what the fans want is Illmatic, Stillmatic'/Looked at the pad and pen, fell, and jotted what I feel”
Why It’s Dope: This is Nas himself acknowledging the greatness of his own work, knowing that the fans want another classic like Illmatic. Being able to recognize your own greatness; if that’s not dope, what is?