This Saturday, Nas’ magnum opus Illmatic turns 20. The Queensbridge native’s journey into becoming a legendary MC all started with a groundbreaking debut that captured his worldview of the projects through a sharpened lens. XXL is celebrating the monumental anniversary with Nas Week, and we are proud to present you with every cover the iconic rapper has appeared on. Now let us take a trip down memory lane.
Cypress Hill did it. Eminem too. But Nas isn’t just burning magazine covers for fun. He’s bringing the fight to all media who haven’t told his story right. The real Drama King has done it again.
Words: Jermaine Hall
Images: Piotr Sikora
“I don’t care about burning these magazines!”
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones shouts, to whomever might be listening, in his signature hoarse pitch. Standing in a photo studio in Manhattan’s tony Chelsea neighborhood, he pauses to inspect the foreground, where national pubs such as Vibe, The Source, Complex and Fader are scattered around a mock campfire setting, their ends charred like passed-over Fourth of July hotdogs. After careful analysis, he deems the set incomplete. The show will not go on without a medium-rare XXL, he says. And Rolling Stone, the 36-year-old music rag which sports White America’s latest 15-minute infatuation, Ashton Kutcher, on its cover, needs to join the ceremony as well.
Done. With all props in place, Nas picks up his point. “Rolling Stone don’t know what the fuck rap is. Vibe don’t know what the fuck hip-hop is. The Source and XXL are barely on it, you know what I’m saying? Hip-hop has been misrepresented since it’s been on the scene. Hip-hop has never been properly represented 100 percent.”
He who laughs last, as the saying goes, laughs the loudest. And while it’s with more of a smirk, really, than a full-scale guffaw, Nas is raising a sharp and pointy middle finger to the mighty print media. No one publication in particular, but rather all of them. (Ummm… all of us?) All the smarty-pants critics who, nine years ago, anointed his 10-song debut, Illmatic, as hip-hop’s Sistine Chapel, but then slammed its followup, It Was Written, as an over-orchestrated reach for commercial acceptance. Those who chose to dwell on the negative, deeming his twin 1999 albums, I Am… The Autobiography and Nastradamus, artistic failures, even as they both found commercial success. Those meddling muckrakers (Ummm… that’s us again) who feed a celebrity-obsessed public’s hunger for gossip and dirt of the basest sort.
Nas has an elephant’s memory. So the wave of media dick-riding he’s received lately won’t alter his mission. Crown Stillmatic a classic. Praise God’s Son as a work of genius plus passion. Raise his right hand and call him the victor of what was arguably the greatest lyrical competition of our time. It means nothing to the MC who said “Hate Me Now,” the man who believes “the first shall be last.” He’s shootin’—straight at you. (Yup, straight at us.) This is Nas’s revenge.