Nas, Illmatic – ‘Halftime’ BREAKDOWN
‘Halftime’ is the fifth song on Illmatic and marks the halfway point on the project. Aptly titled ‘Halftime’, the song was first released as a single in 1992 and later added to Illmatic for his 1994 debut. Large Professor produced the track which has the bona fide boom bap sound.
Nas’ starts off with a bar from his iconic ‘Live At The BBQ’ (Main Source) verse where his infamous alias, ‘Nasty Nas’ is introduced. The lines go ‘Check me out y’all/ Nasty Nas in your area/ About to cause mass hysteria’.
The intro is followed by verse one which begins, ‘Before a blunt I take out my fronts’. Here, ‘fronts’ refer to metal/jewellery teeth and Nas is removing them to spark a ‘blunt’ i.e. start the verse. This also marks the beginning of a ‘manhunt’ in Nas’ mind. He uses the idea of ‘Malcolm X catchin’ Jungle Fever’ to demonstrate the odds of him being caught as X, a strong black rights activist, would never have fallen in love with a white woman.
Nas then states ‘I’m an ace when I face the bass’ i.e. he is an ‘ace’ at rapping over beats (‘bass’). ‘(B)ass’ is also a homophone for “base”, which may refer to cocaine, so Nas is also stating that he is an ‘ace’ drug dealer.
‘And I’m a Nike head, I wear chains that excite the feds’
Nas notes that he is a ‘Nike head’ which is a play on the idea of being a drug addict e.g. “crackhead”. The brand is current and trendy so Nas is in keeping with fashion and thus is a cool and relatable figure. In addition to this dress, he flaunts his ‘chains’ to the ‘feds’ who would never believe that someone from his background/neighbourhood could afford such commodities without thieving – a marker of racial stereotypes which by effect taps into the pervasive issue of institutionalised racism.
The fifteen-bar verse ends with the lines:
‘Nas why did you do it?
You know you got the mad-phat fluid when you rhyme,
This is set out as if Nas is being questioned by someone or by himself subconsciously in third person. It is rhetorical bragging device to state that Nas has dominated the rap game. The term ‘mad-phat’ is a slang compound noun used in New York in the early nineties meaning an exciting thing that is cool. Nas is being praised for his rhyming skills here.
The final words of the verse, ‘It’s halftime’, are a build-up to the chorus which repeats the phrase four times. This simple hook, a feature of most songs on Illmatic, is perfect for the track and ends with the bar ‘This is how it feel, check it out, how it feel’, to build up anticipation for verse two.
Verse two is a mammoth 32-bars in length (twice the size of a regular rap verse).
In the verse, Nas raps, ‘When I attack, there ain’t a army that can strike back/ So I react never calmly on a hype track’. These two bars have a layered rhyme scheme, which gives it a short, sonically pleasant flow. The war imagery demonstrates the aggression and power Nas’ can have on a track and is hyperbolic for emphasis.
A violent image follows as Nas raps, ‘Cause I’m as ill as a convict who kills for phone time’. Nas is referring to someone that would literally kill out of desperation and impatience ‘for phone time’ in prison. This is another simile exemplifying Nas’ skill (‘ill’). A few bars down, Nas describes that the playing of his music ‘In your stereo sets’ will reveal his outstanding talent and performance. The phrase ‘Nas’ll catch wreck’ is used here to signify his powerful, relentless flow and lyrics.
Nas inventively describes his large shoe collection when saying that he has ‘more kicks than a baby in a mother’s stomach’. Here, the double entendre of ‘kicks’ (slang for shoes) is a classic example of Nas’ adept wordplay.
‘Nasty Nas has to rise ‘cause I’m wise
This is exercise ‘til the microphone dies’
Nas uses internal and end rhyming – a quintessential hip hop rhyme scheme – to exemplify his undying love for hip hop; he will rap ‘til the microphone dies’, a personification heightening Nas’ passion for emceeing.
‘Back in ’83, I was an MC sparking
But I was too scared to grab the mic’s in the parks and
Kick my little raps ’cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand’
Nas was young when he started to rap (only around ten) but didn’t have the confidence to ‘grab the mic’s in the parks’. These were public gatherings to demonstrate rapping skills in New York during the eighties. The raps that ‘n****s wouldn’t understand’ are a mark of him being a level above his peers.
‘And now in every jam I’m the f***n’ man’
Nas’ ability is fully expressed now that he is older and rapping for the masses. He is an established name in ‘every jam’ and known for his skills which position him above his contemporaries.
‘I rap in front of more niggas than in the slave ships’
This metaphor exemplifies Nas’ popularity and acclaim as he can perform in front of hundreds, even thousands of people. The image of a ‘slave ship’ emphasises the crowds Nas attracts as such ships were notoriously tightly packed for slave masters to make as much profit as possible. These close-quarters mimic the feeling of being at a filled concert i.e. a Nas concert.
‘These are the lyrics of the man, you can’t near it, understand
‘Cause in the streets, I’m well known like the number man’
The phraseology of ‘the lyrics of the man’ paint Nas as ‘the man’ i.e. the go-to, important figure. Nas reiterates how good a lyricist he is by sending a message to fellow emcees, ‘you can’t near it’. This is followed by the bold affirmative, ‘understand’, to clarify his lyrical dominance over opposition.
‘And next time I rhyme I be foul
Whenever I freestyle I see trial niggas say I’m wild’
Nas proclaims his rhyming as ‘foul’ and his freestyling fit to ‘see trial’. The likening of amazing things to crime is a common statement of awe as such talent isn’t fit for normal society. This is similar to Nas’ idea of his bars deserving incarceration due to the influence and freedom of speech in ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ (the last track on the album). Also, notice the complex rhyme scheme in these lines to produce another rhythmic flow. This technique is a hip hop staple in marking the end of a section or a verse.
The chorus plays before the third and concluding verse.
The opening bars:
‘I got it going on, even flip a morning song
Every afternoon, I kick half the tune
And in the darkness, I’m heartless like when the narcs hit’
tell us that he raps all day, in the ‘morning’ and the ‘afternoon’ – to represent his rapping enthusiasm. He uses multi-syllable rhyming with the word ‘afternoon’ and the phrase ‘half the tune’ – a technique pioneered by the immeasurably influential Rakim years before him. He talks about an evil streak in his character during ‘the darkness’ (at night) when he is ‘heartless’ (possibly in facing opposition). The simile ending these bars of the ‘narcs’, who infamously raid properties without any warning and at any time (‘in the darkness’), emphasise Nas’ heartlessness.
A notion popularised by Tupac Shakur, who was Nas’ close friend in the early nineties, can be seen in the following line which refers to the idea that “heaven gotta ghetto”. Nas tells us that he will need his ‘.44’ (gun) when he reaches heaven to protect himself. This can also be seen as a condemnation of ‘God’ maybe due to the poor state of the world Nas lives in.
The idea of ‘biters’ is explored in the next line, ‘biters’ being people who copy other people’s styles. Nas states that they ‘can’t come near’ him because of his unique, highly complex lyrical talents.
Next, Nas discusses the murder of a young person he knew called ‘Garcia’ who was shot by a cop. The hate against the police is evident in this song and most of the album due to their corrupt behaviour and misjudgements Nas’ experienced first-hand. He shows his hatred for this cop in particular which adds a personal note to Nas’ relationship with the deceased. He describes him as ‘foul’ which sharply jars against the use of the same word describing Nas’ lyrical excellence earlier in the song.
‘I won’t plant seeds, don’t need an extra mouth I can’t feed
That’s extra Phillie change, more cash for that weed’
Nas tells us that he does not want to ‘plant seeds’ i.e. have children. The play on the phrase “an extra mouth to feed” is altered to the stark realism of ‘an extra mouth I can’t feed’. Consequently, children are seen as a burden to Nas and he wants to avoid having them for their own health and welfare. Nas talks about the little money he had that would have been used on his children instead being used to fund the purchase of ‘damp weed’ (a raw type of marijuana fresh from the plant). Despite these lines, Nas’ currently has two children, but the bars still resonate with multitudes of parents in poverty.
Nas references ‘The Boogie Down’.
Hip hop legend KRS-One had a famous crew known as “Boogie Down Productions” and Nas mentions their conflict with MC Shan in ‘NY State of Mind’ – the first documented beef in rap.
The last line Nas raps is ‘Ill Will, rest in peace, yo, I’m out.’. ‘Ill Will’ was Nas’ close childhood friend who he saw murdered as a youth. Nas pays homage and shows love for him throughout ‘Illmatic’. Note that the album is named in part as ‘Ill’. He signs off with the words ‘I’m out’.
The outro sees Nas and his crew running from the police as he insists ‘let’s get ghost’. The word ‘ghost’ refers to disappearing and originates from the Swayze flick ‘Ghost’ (1990). The name ‘Swayze’ is also a synonym for ‘ghost’ popularly used in hip hop (see ‘Runnin’ (2Pac & Biggie)). Nas also mentions ‘‘92’ in the outro which is the year the song was first released.
‘Halftime’ is another masterpiece of a song and sums up another bunch of Nas’ vivid experiences in the rough neighbourhood of Queensbridge during the eighties and early nineties.