9 Brilliant Lyrics From Nas’s Illmatic

 On November 18, P.I.G. China and The Grumpy Pig (65 Maoming Bei Road near Ya’an Road) held is monthly PigPen Cinema film screening. We presented the celebrated and engrossing Nas: Time is Illmatic to a completely packed house at The Grumpy Pig restaurant. Attendees–ranging from long-time Nas fans to lovers of documentaries to the simply curious–had their eyes glued to the screen as they gobbled down delicious treats from The Grumpy Pig.

 Time is Illmatic centers around the creation of Illmatic, rapper Nas’s iconic 1994 debut album. Even if you know nothing about rap, or hate it entirely, the film still comes recommended as an engaging documentary that touches on a lauded artist’s process, no less insightful about the creative facility of a master craftsperson than Bill Cunningham New York or Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.

With just 9 songs and one intro, Illmatic took listeners on a journey through the crime-ridden streets of Queens, NY NY so grimly vivid that it transcended the auditory. At just 20 years old, Nas took lyric-writing in hip-hop to a never-before known intricacy. In the 20 years since its release, the album’s musical innovations have imbued themselves within the DNA of all hip-hop.

Below we take a look at the greatest lines from each of Illmatic’s 9 songs, and in the process unravel just why the album is considered such an essential work.

1. “NY State of Mind”

Rappers I monkey-flip ‘em with the funky rhythm
I be kickin’, musician, inflicting composition of
Pain I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine, holding an
M16, see with a pen I’m extreme

Off the bat, the very first lines rapped by Nas on Illmatic introduce a poetic device rarely employed in his time, enjambment. Enjambment is when one line of a poem runs into the next, allowing longer statements to be made within the limitations of a poem’s meter (inflicting composition of/pain, I’m like Scarface, sniffing cocaine, holding a/M16, see…). Enjambment allowed Nas to tell a continuous story within the confines of a 4/4 count beat, engaging rap listeners with not just the song’s rhythm, but also its content.

2. “Life’s a B****”

I woke up early on my born day, I’m 20 it’s a blessin’
The essence of adolescence leaves my body now I’m fresh, and
my physical frame is celebrated ‘cause I made it
one quarter through life some Godly-like thing created.

As shown in the documentary Time is Illmatic, when Nas grew up in his impoverished Queensbridge housing projects, his life was constantly imperiled by drug addicts and violent criminals. Here Nas expresses gratitude for his survival into adulthood, despite still being unsure of which higher entity granted it to him. Further instances of enjambment appear in this song (see bolded letters), to help express hefty thoughts over a light drum pattern.

3. The World is Yours 

Dwelling in the rotten apple, you get tackled
Or caught by the devil’s lasso, s*** is a hassle!
…I need a new n***a, for this black cloud to follow,
‘cause while it’s over me, it’s too dark to see tomorrow

In Jay-Z’s New York Times bestselling book Decoded, he says something very insightful about those that misread rap music:

The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally… It’s all white noise to them till they hear a “b****” or a “n****” and then they run off yelling “See!” and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about.”

Here Nas is morosely discussing his depression (black clouds) and hopelessness (too dark to see tomorrow), and how living where he lives makes him highly susceptible to criminal temptations (the devil’s lasso). However, some listeners would find the painful honesty in his words unsympathetic, simply because they are heard in the context of an explicit rap song.  It should be noted that at the time of Illmatic’s release, the concept of criminals being a natural product of poverty was not widely accepted, and many political platforms and policies, including Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, were based around the idea that those who committed crime were simply born immoral.