Becoming an icon in the music industry requires an enforcement of permanence and importance. This can be achieved by a consistent output of albums but I’d argue that the true iconic status is brought about by creating a piece of art that stands as an emblem of a genre or era. When it comes to the earlier eras of rap and hip hop, many early acts imposed a status quo recreated, reinterpreted and retooled over time. Nas was one such artist at the forefront of rap with Illmatic. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, it stands as one of the greatest albums in its genre. It played with the juxtaposition of hope and horror those raised in the Brooklyn projects endured making for a gritty, real telling of encounters with drugs, crime, and star potential.
Time is Illmatic isn’t a conventional tour. This isn’t a band playing a medley of hits coupled with newer songs; it’s a reverent retrospect on rap royalty. Not many concerts are predominantly a documentary on the life of the musician. As a celebration of Illmatic, this tour offers a completely different way to experience music I’d like to see explored more. Successful, innovative musicians can be few and far between and to give the fans an opportunity to learn about and indulge in the music is something sublime. This was an album I’ve considered one of my favorites, yet the documentary provided insight on the music and era that only the artist and those close to them could provide. Couple that with the opportunity to hear the artist perform the songs, and it becomes a unique, involving, and engaging night with them. Time is Illmatic shouldn’t just be given praise for how enjoyable it was but how it provides a new template for concert experiences. The notion of seeing bands revisit older albums without the documentary is no novel idea, but the movie adds to the hype and anticipation while providing new perspectives on old favourites. Have you ever stood in front of a stage littered with instruments and the like throwing back and forth trivial knowledge, tidbits of info, or opinionated discussions about the music? Imagine all that giddiness rolled up into a fully fleshed out production. It teases you with his presence, providing interviews and discussion that not only elicits a greater appreciation for the music, but a need to hear it until the anticipation has boiled over, the credits roll, fade to black, and “Genesis” starts playing.
Nas is timeless. The poignancy of his lyrics is only matched by the technicality of rhythms, stops, and stresses that have made many agree he has one of the greatest flows in rap. The performance aspect of his show may not have been impeccable, but it was only because he was so personable. All performance he paced back and forth, shaking every extended hand, signing t-shirts and albums, all the while trying to nail some of his most complicated verses. In a way, the performance aspect of the show epitomized the entire evening; it wasn’t so much about performing the songs as it was about the people and inspirations behind it. His decision to take breaks to speak and socialize was not about an inability, but to reach out to the people who he inspires as the local rappers reached out to him when he was just a young kid in the projects. There may have been some people who would’ve preferred a full out performance, but this was a special evening dedicated to an album with a legacy. Illmatic asserted itself from the get go that it wasn’t going to downplay the struggles, loss, hope, and hopelessness of a young Nasir Jones. As a result, it became so much more than the sum of its parts. Musically, it was strong, but as a turning point in hip hop and rap, it achieved that what eludes other aspiring icons: permanence.