Illmatic 26th Anniversary – ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ BREAKDOWN
The last track on Illmatic, ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ is another masterpiece and a great conclusion to a great album. The song has no chorus which gives the impression that it is a continuous stream of consciousness. Nas is pulling no punches in this song and its structure gives it this sense. It emphasises how passionate Nas is for pure rapping and stands out as message that he can outrap anybody – a stone cold fact during the release of the project.
The title has no clear meaning so by Nas using it as the first bar, it is indicated that he is going to explain the reason(s) why and what “It ain’t hard to tell”.
The opening verse is introduced with these bars:
‘It aint hard to tell,
I excel then prevail,
The mic is contacted, that I attract clientele’
This shows Nas’ work ethic. And to put is Lehman’s terms, his skillset in rap is what he ‘excel(s)’ at and this is what makes him ‘prevail’. The final line states that Nas’ voice and rapping is magnetic as he ‘attract(s) clientelle’ when on ‘the mic’. This is partly due to his ability to flow and deliver as if in conversation or telling a story.
Nas explains the importance of the ‘mic check’ as a ‘life or death’ situation, due to it priming one’s vocals before rapping. He extends this by likening this act to ‘a sniper’s breath’. The meaning being that a deep breath steadies the shooter when shaky or anxious. Nas tells us that his lyricism is ‘deep like The Shinin’’. The reference to Stephen King’s novel turn classic psychological horror movie gives listeners an insight into the ‘deep(ness)’ of what Nas is rapping. This notion is present throughout his discography.
‘Sneak a uzi on the island in my army jacket lining’
This line is full of military imagery. An ‘uzi’ being a brand of Israeli gun and the ‘army jacket lining’. In addition, ‘the island’ in question is referring to the notorious “Riker’s Island” prison. Therefore, the line represents smuggling items into prisons – commonplace for the acquisition of contraband, namely drugs and weapons. Nas reiterates this reality. The subsequent bar states that his musical talents will ‘Hit the Earth like a comet – invasion!’ as he sees his abilities as superior and unique, unlike anybody.
Verse one ends two profound lines:
‘I drink Moët with Medusa, give her shotguns in Hell
From the spliff that I lift and inhale; it ain’t hard to tell’
The idea of looking ‘Medusa’ in the eye, ‘give her shotguns’, is especially jarring. In Greek mythology, Medusa was a being whose eye contact would turn male observers into stone. Nas writes hypothetically about locking eyes with her and drinking ‘Moët’. This can serve as a symbol of rebellion against logical convention and as a mark of fearlessness. He details smoking a ‘spliff’ in the next line and mentions that it ‘lift(ed)’ him, an allusion to the hallucinogenic experience of being “high”. This bar extends via a semi-colon as the title of the track is repeated. This is an intelligent use of language. Nas begun the section with ‘It ain’t hard to tell’ and proceeded to inform us why this is and now that he has done so he reiterates the phrase at the end of the section. It seems almost as if Nas is talking to us, as he breaks down his opening statement and then states it at the end to remind of us of what he means.
Verse number two kicks off with the line ‘The buddha monk’s in your trunk, turn the bass up’. Here ‘the buddha monk’ is Nas, given his love of marijuana, ‘buddha’ being slang for it, and his placement ‘in your trunk’ (a place where the speakers are) represents his music being blasted there, hence the phrase ‘turn the bass up’. The line, ‘School a fool well, you feel it like Braille’, is a condescending reference implying that Nas is teaching other rappers how to rap. The use of ‘Braille’ indicates that they are blind and need to be guided.
Nas continues and makes a nifty reference to the album title, ‘Vocabulary spills, I’m Ill plus Matic’. His “stream of consciousness” is demonstrated as his ‘vocabulary spills’ through his raps. A few lines down, Nas says ‘So analyse me, surprise me, but can’t magmatize me’ to show us that others can study him however they want but they will never get to him or get to his level. The word ‘magmatize’ is actually made-up but can be seen as a misspelling of “magnetize” or a hidden meaning intended by the writer. Either way, its general message tells us that Nas is not affected by opinions or scrutiny. This is continued in the next line where he notes that opposition who are ‘Scannin’ while your plannin’ ways to sabotage me’ will not prevail. He concludes by saying:
‘I leave ‘em froze, like Her-on in your nose.
Nas will rock well; it ain’t hard to tell’
‘Her-on’ refers to heroin and Nas details what he will do to his enemies, ‘I leave ‘em froze’. Nas rapping acumen will freeze opposition with fear. The final line alludes to Nas’ heroin accumulation, ‘Nas will rock well’, ‘rock’ being the operative word given its meaning as heroin. Yet again, he ends with ‘it ain’t hard to tell’ which becomes a refrain and is the closest we get to a chorus. Nas is giving us more reasons why ‘it ain’t hard to tell’ via various angles and cases.
The final verse is a full 16-bar piece which is the accustomed length of a rap one. In a way, Nas is delivering the most structured, orthodox rap section of the song. The significance of this is that it returns to a classic format and is an organised ending not only to the song, but the entire album.
‘This rhythmatic explosion,
Is what your frame of mind has chosen
I’ll leave your brain stimulated, niggas is frozen’
Nas raps are a ‘rhythmatic explosion’ which captivates the listener. The addition of “matic” to “rhythm” is a call-back to the album’s title which also composes of “matic”. The extension of the word “rhythm” adds a hint of dramatism to the subsequent word ‘explosion’, giving it an audibly more exciting tone. The ‘frame of mind’ of the listener gravitates towards Nas’ music and ‘leave(s) your brain stimulated’. This captivation causes people to become ‘frozen’, a word also stated earlier in the song, as they are lulled lyrically and sonically.
‘End like Leviathan, it’s deep? Well, let me try again’
‘Leviathan’ is the name of a sea monster mentioned in the Bible and was capable of spitting fire. This creates a feeling of menace and apprehension from opposition. Nas uses this figure to demonstrate similar traits he possesses to deter and eradicate enemies. Also, notice the syllabic rhyme of ‘Leviathan’ and ‘me try again’, another demonstration of his technical rapping ability.
‘Wisdom be leakin’ out my grapefruit, troop’ is a vivid line due to the metaphor of the ‘grapefruit’ as the brain. Nas’ is so intellectual that this intelligence is literally ‘leakin’’ out of him in surplus. This is a clever hyperbole to assert his mental acuity. Nas is the ‘Street’s disciple’ so his knowledge of the streets are incorporated into his raps. This phrase is also the title of one of Nas later albums.
‘My poetry’s deep, I never fell
Nas’s raps should be locked in a cell; it ain’t hard to tell’
The ultimate bars of the song express the depth Nas raps hold as he says, ‘My poetry’s deep’. Nas sees his work as poetry and to be honest it is to a degree. The way in which he crafts words and meanings is somewhat poetic. This is something which few rappers possess with two more that come to mind being Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur (who was actually poet).
Nas’ conclusion notes that the profundity of his bars should be deemed illegal, yet, the idea of freedom of speech prevents this. On Nas’ verified Genius lyrics account, he says that “I was saying things that wasn’t said. So that’s why I was like “Nas’ raps should be locked in a cell,” because shit is crazy”. It is ironic how ‘a cell’ is barred by bars and bars also refer to lines in a rap track. This shows us how Nas will always be able to rap even if removed from society. The soundbite sounding ‘it ain’t hard to tell’ is the concluding phrase to the song and is another reiteration of how Nas raps and actions lead to amazing things. Thus, it is his intelligence lyrically and as a person that make these outcomes seem common as with them ‘it ain’t hard to tell’ why he is such a rapping phenomenon.