9 Brilliant Lyrics From Nas’s Illmatic

4. “Halftime”

When I attack, there ain’t an army that can strike back
So I react never calmly on a hype track

Nas took multi-syllabic rhyming to a whole new degree of complexity (army that can strike back/calmly on a hype track), forcing all MCs who came after him to do more thinking before putting pen to paper.

A New York Magazine profile once revealed that Nas “consciously chooses beats that are light on hooks…so as not to distract from the lyrics.” The article adds that the timelessness of Nas’s writing has usurped the perishable pop trends in hip-hop sounds: “While [Nas’s] beat selection has kept him from the top of the pop charts, it has also protected him from its whims.”

5. “Memory Lane”

“[My] sentence begins indented, with formality
My duration’s infinite, moneywise or physiology…

As described in Time is Illmatic, Nas was an avid reader of dictionaries when he was a child, and took the act of composing his lyrics very seriously (sentence begins indented, with formality). Another line regarding the lyrical density Nas aims for comes from “The World is Yours” – (“Writing in my book of rhymes, all the lines pass the margin”). During this time the “funky” party dance rap was going out of style, and Nas helped carve the modern-day east coast hip-hop sound, which prized impressive lyricism and an extended vocabulary over dance-ability.

A 1994 magazine announcing Nas's galvanizing debut.

A 1994 magazine announcing Nas’s galvanizing debut.

6. “One Love”

Wilding on the Island, but now in Elmira

Better chill cause them n***** will put that ass on fire
Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers

But maintain when you come home the corner’s ours

“One Love” is written as a letter to Nas’s friend in prison. Nas was one of the first rappers to bring realism and detail into his “gangster” raps, and instead of the broad tough talk that was popular in hip-hop at the time, Nas emanated authenticity by referencing very specific people and locations. Here he name-drops New York’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility (the Island) and Elmira Maximum Security Prison, places in which many of the people in his neighborhood wound up being incarcerated.

It’s unknown how much of “One Love” is based on true stories and how much is simply Nas writing a narrative, but in either case it flows together and feels real. The song has garnered praise for “exploit[ing] poetic devices … so subtly that it works as prose.”

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