The summer and fall of 2001 were tremendously exciting times to be a young rap nerd. Jay-Z and Nas were throwing lyrical haymakers at each other, scrambling for the upper hand, using every possible weapon at their disposal to wreck each other. Rap had had plenty of storied rivalries, of course, but we’d never heard two commercial, artistic titans going for blood like that, getting unrelentingly personal with every line. Nas talked about Jay’s “dick sucking lips” and “whiskers like a rat.” Jay made explicit reference to fucking Nas’s ex in Nas’s car. Only one thing was off-limits, and that one thing was Illmatic. That’s the one hot album in Jay’s “one hot album every ten year average” line from “The Takeover,” and you can even hear a bit of awe creep into his voice when he pronounces the album’s title. Talking about the Nas sample on his own “Dead Presidents,” Jay famously says, “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song,” but at least he acknowledges that it was a hot line, you know? In fact, Illmatic sits there underneath everything Jay says on “The Takeover.” He couldn’t just say you’re garbage. He had to say look at all this enormous power and potential you had when you started; isn’t it too bad that you’re garbage now? Because what could Jay possibly say about Illmatic? It was, and is, untouchable — as perfect a piece of deep-in-its-own-head New York rap as we’re ever likely to hear. Some perspective here: Illmatic was only seven years old when Jay and Nas were having their back-and-forth. Seven years is nothing. Can you imagine someone coming at Kanye West’s head now but acknowledging, along the way, that at least Graduation was amazing? It would never happen. But Illmatic was canonized, justly, basically the instant it arrived. It’s an albatross for Nas, and for rap, and for everyone who likes thinking about rap. Because if an album like that was once possible, why can’t anyone make it now?
Read more at Illmatic Turns 20