Nas, Illmatic – ‘Represent’ BREAKDOWN
This track is one of the best from the album and really exudes Nas’ connection to his hometown Queensbridge and friends and family.
Nas sets the tone of the song by meeting up with a few friends who begin to repeat the refrain, ‘represent, represent’ before the first verse. This gives us a visual of Nas and his crew, likely on the street corners, rapping. The title itself is a giveaway to the patriotic spirit with which Nas delivers his verses and informs us on his environment and people.
The first verse starts with the lines:
‘Straight up shit is real and any day can be your last in the jungle
Get murdered on the humble guns’ll blast n***** tumble’
Off-the-bat the hostile and violent neighbourhood Nas dwells in is described. This is a statement about the ‘real’ danger and dark reality of Queensbridge but also a warning to those who feel they can visit nonchalantly. The idea of a ‘humble’ murder is especially distressing as it epitomises injustice and hopelessness. Lyrically these lines are impressive with the internal and end-rhymes as well as the conversational flow Nas is famous for. The likening of the hood to a ‘jungle’ is an embodiment of its feral unforgiving nature where only the fittest survive.
‘The corners is the hot spot for mad criminals
Who don’t care guzzlin’ beers’
Here, the infamous setting of street ‘corners’ where drug dealing takes place is a ‘hot spot’ for all sorts of crime. The people placed in such environments are accustomed to its mundane repetitiveness and lowly status in society and thus remove themselves from its perils by not caring and drinking. Nas’ use of the adjective ‘mad’ intensifies his description.
Subsequently, Nas notes that competition posed by ‘out-of-towners’ for street corners will result in ‘four-pounders’ (alluding to a typical .45 calibre gun) to ‘take their face off’ if they fail to ‘break North’ (i.e. leave).
The following three lines show the hood as full of ‘undercovers’ (police officers) who set out to murder criminals who are majority black. This references police brutality and institutionalised racism which have been rampant for decades in modern America, a theme especially relevant to today with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so on triggering mass protests worldwide. Nas also notes that the ‘Ds’ (detectives) perch on the rooves of buildings to observe criminal activity (see HBO’s ‘The Wire’) and even use ‘helicopters’ to intervene at times. He aptly describes such people as ‘killer coppers’.
Nas questions religion when he says that he ‘won’t even run bout gods, I don’t believe in none of that shit your facts are backwards’. We see him wrangling with the idea that God is not real as there is no concrete, scientific or empirical evidence of his existence which Nas was prided upon at the time. The bleakness of his crime ridden neighbourhood may also be a reason for this opinion.
This famous first verse concludes with:
‘Nas is a rebel of the street corner
Pullin a TEC out the dresser; police got me under pressure.’
Nas brags about his rebelliousness and ‘TEC’ which he claims he is versatile at handling. He ends by telling us that the ‘police’ have him ‘under pressure’ which represents him and those around him as paranoid. The police can appear from anywhere as they are undercover as stated earlier so the ‘TEC’ is precautionary and for self-defence.
The chorus is a simple repetition of the refrain at the beginning of the track and is delivered by Nas’ fellow Queens dwellers. This acts like a chant to signify a togetherness and comradery in spite of the negatives of the hood; they are forever prideful.
Verse two begins with Nas introducing himself:
‘Yo, they call me Nas, I’m not your legal type of fella
Moet drinking, marijuana smoking street dweller’
This is usually a verse one topic but Nas describes his neighbourhood of Queens before himself as he is representing them. Nas tells us that he does not conform to the law, drinks alcohol and smokes ‘marijuana’ on the streets; he is clearly not a role model. Nas opts to present himself in stark and truthful terms which is an introspective quality we see later in his discography (‘The Lost Tapes’).
Nas says that he ‘Loves committing sins and my friends sell crack’ which directly references those around him ‘committing sins’ but not explicitly himself. This is a concurrent theme in Illmatic as Nas describes the incidents he observes rather than partakes in and even when involved he notes the societal impact or repercussions of his actions. This ties in with the notion that the album is from the perspective of a young Nas looking outside of his window upon the crime and events taking place below.
His detest for formal education is seen when he raps, ‘the school drop-out, never liked this shit since day one’. He instead is educated by the streets and tangible life experiences which are a first-hand unadulterated reality. He follows up by stating this bleak reality as full of ‘stress, fake n***** and crab stunts’. The latter term being East Coast slang for an untrustworthy person.
One of my favourite lines of the song and even the album is when Nas raps:
‘The brutaliser, crew de-sizer, accelerator
The type of n**** who be pissing in your elevator’
Barring lyricism, here we see the act of urination in hood housing estates as a form of disrespect and hatred to such a lifestyle and setting. Nas is an outright thug who is brutal and will ‘de-size[r]’ your ‘crew’ in rapid fashion (‘accelerator’).
The verse is completed by a description of the classic excess rappers are drawn to, ‘fat chains’ etc. and Nas has embraced now that he is a successful rapper the industry.
Verse three starts after the chorus and carries on the idea of a rich lifestyle in the opening line, ‘No doubt, see my stacks are fat, this is what it’s about’.
Nas then references some of the earliest documented beefs in hip hop to denote a certain time period/year(s). He talks of ‘the BDP conflict with MC Shan’ and The Roxanne Wars. The latter being an approximate time in his childhood (~1984) when he used to dodge police, hang around ‘cocaine spots’ and steal from ‘the candy factory’ with his friends. These petty misdemeanours, especially ‘breaking the locks’, cleverly alludes to a future of more serious crimes.
Stemming from this hark back at his childhood, Nas states his current need for money in directly subsequent bars. He mentions his need for cash ‘just like the next man’ and his prior satisfaction with ‘a yard’ ($100) in the past. However, he settles for nothing less than ‘a hundred grand’, now that he is older, and has a wider perspective of the world.
Nas mentions the names of people in his crew who perform various actions such as profit counting to murdering in relation to drug slinging which he is determined to isolate from his own home. The last line of the third and final verse concludes the song perfectly as Nas tells us that he has represented his hood and is now ‘ghost’ (i.e. disappearing from a place). He ends with the words, ‘one love’, a declaration of peace and reference to a track of the same name on the album.
The track’s outro is a shout-out to many of Nas’ friends who he has represented in the song. These people are friends of Nas and those who have worked on the track itself: ‘And my man Preemo from Gang Starr’. ‘Represent’ was produced by the legendary DJ Premier (‘Preemo’) who was apart of the infamous rapper/producer duo Gang Starr along with rapper Guru.