7. “One Time For Your Mind”
I’m trying to get this money, God, you know the hard times, kid
S*** cold, be starving make you wanna do crimes, kid
But I’m a lamp, ‘cause crime couldn’t beat a rhyme,
N****s catching 3 to 9’s, Muslims yelling “Free the mind”
Here we get another example of Nas’s then-unparalleled polysyllabic rhyming (beat-a-rhyme/3-to-9’s/free-the-mind), and also an example of how Illmatic puts a listener smack dab in Nas’s Queensbridge stomping grounds. On one street corner you saw desperate people being arrested and put in jail (“catching 3 to 9s” means receiving 3-9 year prison terms) and on another corner Black Muslims are proselytizing against the neighborhood’s vices (yelling “Free the mind”). Nas’s words have transported people from all walks of life into his streets; his admirers include the country’s top academics, this young Chinese girl from Xi’an, and the very awkward Google computer programmers at this Q&A.
They call me Nas, I’m not your legal type of fella,
Moet drinking, marijuana smoking street dweller,
Who’s always on the corner, rolling up blessed
When I dress, it’s never nothing less than Guess
Not all of the songs on Illmatic deviated from the rap conventions of bragging about materialism and drug use. But here even that is done in an effective way. “When I dress, it’s never nothing less than Guess” is a very illustrative summation of Nas’s expensive tastes.
9. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”
This rhythm-atic explosion is what your frame of mind has chosen
I’ll leave your brain stimulated, n****s is frozen
Speak with criminal slang, begin like a vi-o-lin
End like Le-via-than, it’s deep, well let me try again
Nas concludes his album still unapologetic about his unique voice, his lack of flashy choruses, and the fact that his lyrics require actual focus and thought to grasp. Also, the lines “begin like a violin/end like leviathan” are just plain cool.
20 years after Illmatic was released, Nas reflects on his own influence:
“I rap from a perspective of a human being, and in rap, that wasn’t really the thing…[mines was] one of the first albums that talked about life in that manner, hands on.” Later, in an NPR interview, he added “I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like…I told the story that way because I thought that it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t tell it. ”
To find out more about Nas and his masterwork, check out Time is Illmatic, now available on iTunes and Video-on-Demand!