How Nas used the ‘Illmatic’ cover art to share his story
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How Nas used the 'Illmatic' cover art to share his story

Nas is one of hip-hop’s most renowned lyricists. Hailing from Queensbridge, the emcee (real name Nasir Jones) was one of New York’s most prestigious acts and is still widely considered one of the greatest MCs ever.

Nas did not burst onto the mainstream instantly. Akin to so many artists, he was rejected by various labels before he eventually signed with Columbia Records. However, he had been a potent underground emcee since he was a teenager.

In various interviews, New York label executive and producer Large Professor has explained that in the early days of his career, industry heads, including Russell Simmons, refused to sign Nas as his sound was too reminiscent of other acts out at the time. However, under the wing of MC Serch, when Jones finally found a musical home, he shook the culture.

In 1994, at the age of just 21, Nas released his debut project, Illmatic, a body of work so exceptional it was inducted into the Library of Congress in 2021 due to its cultural impact. 

With the help of powerhouses such as DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and L.E.S, Jones carefully crafted an album which, to this day, still holds weight. With lyrics illustrating the run-down inner city, the rapper managed to romanticise very sombre themes and found beauty in what most would consider squalor.

Illmatic blew the doors off the culture. However, aside from its contents, Nas used the project’s cover art to tell a story. The front of the album shows a seven-year-old Nas superimposed over a city block photograph by Danny Clinch.

Although Jone could have settled on the photo taken by his father, he wanted to include a symbol of Queensbridge. He considered it the place where he learned about the sad realities of his life and knew that as the new face of the neighbourhood, he would have a significant role in the fate of those he left behind in the Queensbridge projects.

Nas initially wanted the cover art of Illmatic to depict an image of him holding Jesus Christ in a headlock. However, he far preferred the idea presented to him by Aimée Macauley, which resulted in the cover we all recognise today.

You can see the cover art of Illmatic below.