Nas, Illmatic – ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ BREAKDOWN
‘N.Y. State of Mind’ is solidified as one of Nas’ greatest songs to date and displays his complex lyrical abilities as well as his story-telling prowess. This track is the opening song to Illmatic and shares the reality of life in Queensbridge, NY for Nas. The song is characterised by exceptional delivery, incredible lyricism, magnetic flow and poeticism.
‘Straight out f*****’ the dungeons of rap
Where real n***** don’t make it back’
Nas begins with a warm-up to prime his rapping vocals and creativity which builds up tension and anticipation for listeners. According to DJ Premier, who produced the track, Nas recorded his iconic first verse in just one take directly after this two-bar stretch.
Verse one consists of around forty bars – a classic New York rapping tradition has of the time. And, off-the-bat, we are introduced to a violent, high-octane sequence of events. This gripping technique transports our imagination into Nas’ neighbourhood. Aiding this is a conversational, storytelling flow used to pull us in and make us listen to every word being delivered.
‘Rappers I monkey flip ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’
Musician, inflict the composition, of pain’
Nas asserts his position above other rappers by telling us he dismissively ‘monkey flip (s) ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’’. The phrase ‘inflict the composition’ personifies his musicianship and art form as a force to be reckoned with, with the word ‘pain’ dramatizing his assertion.
The following lines depict the grittiness and peril in Nas’ hometown of Queensbridge.
‘I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine’
Holdin my M16, see with the pen I’m extreme’
Bullet holes left in my peepholes’
Nas alludes to the 1983 movie ‘Scarface’ to liken himself to protagonist Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant turn megalomaniac drug lord with inordinate wealth and power. In essence, Nas is stating that he is untouchable and powerful in the rap game.
‘Peepholes’ are designed for people to safely identify those knocking on their front doors so ‘bullet holes’ through them highlight the murderous and unforgiving nature of Queensbridge. It’s also a double entendre for ‘peoples’, which would refer to the tragically murdered whom Nas knew.
‘Y’all know my steeylo, with or without the airplay’ is a bar flaunting Nas’ popularity in his neighbourhood and the underground rap scene without the need of radios (‘airplay’) to promote him.
Nas’ gives us an insight into his daily life as he is ‘playing Grants with the ceelo-champs’ and ‘laughin’ at base-heads, tryna sell some broken amps’. This is contrasted when Nas raps ‘Time to start a revolution, catch a body half-way Houston’ as he details a gang-related incident and murdering a person. According to Genius lyrics, ‘Nas sardonically alludes to the political revolution advocated by 1960s/1970s Black Power groups’ in this bar. The line serves as the beginning of a story about an armed attack.
‘I ran like a cheetah, with thoughts of an assassin’ emphasises the wild and instinctive pace Nas uses when darting away from the scene. He is in a precarious predicament and alleviates his worries when he finds a ‘MAC 10 in the grass’. The tables turn as Nas becomes the oppressor as he defends himself with the gun against his pursuers.
The concept of self-defence and attack is juxtaposed as the enemies are determined to kill Nas but instead Nas ends up shooting them. Here, lethal violence is a common theme which permeates throughout the song and the idea that murder is an equaliser and pacifier to a degree reiterates the type of environment Nas lives in. Notably, this section of the track incorporates dialogue to make the scene seem as realistic as possible.
‘So now I’m jettin’ to the buildin’ lobby,
And it was full of children, probably couldn’t see as high I as I be’
To conclude the scene, Nas’ gun jams (see ‘I Gave You Power’ from ‘It Was Written’ album (1996) for more insight) and he describes his surroundings ‘full of children’. This demographic is synonymous with innocence and vulnerability and goes to show how anyone can fall victim and nobody is safe. This further documents the bleak criminal depths of the Queensbridge vicinity.
Following the narrative, Nas tells us and those around him that there are a new crop of kids who are beginning to sell drugs ‘bringin’ fame to they name’ as a result. ‘The game ain’t the same’ is a bar demonstrating the status quo in the streets changing rapidly as time passes. The younger generation is taking over, and Nas, only eighteen years old when writing this song, recognises this. This perspective allows us to deduce that Nas was particularly young when introduced to the drug game.
‘It drops deep as it does my breath
I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death
Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined
I think of crime, when I’m in the New York state of mind.’
The final part of the verse contains some of the most iconic hip hop bars of all time. ‘I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death’ is a line of religious origin and has resonated widely throughout hip hop. It hints at paranoia, insomnia and fear and the New York nickname of ‘The City that Never Sleeps’.
This metonym relates to New York businesses and their workers working tirelessly but Nas uses it to tell us that he and his people don’t sleep as they are afraid of being killed. He twists the meaning of the metonym and clarifies ‘I think of crime, when I’m in the New York state of mind’ to stress what New York represents to him. Any of the positive features of New York outsiders attach to the city are refuted by Nas as unrealistic and inapplicable to him and his community.
‘Been havin’ dreams that I’m gangsta, drinkin’ Moëts, holdin’ TEC’s
Makin’ sure the cash came correct’
Nas begins the second verse by noting his ‘dreams’ and ideals which add up to the image of a stereotypical rich thug. This is his mental role model.
‘But just a n****, walkin’ with his finger on the trigger
Make enough figures until my pockets get bigger’
This ‘dream’ is dismissed when Nas writes two bars that have the exact opposite meaning of the opening lines. This is used as a reality check.
Nas has a tough exterior which was necessary for him get by and he warns people that he ‘ain’t the type of brother made for you to start testin’’. He subtly warns those who do test him by namechecking ‘Smith & Wesson’ gun manufacturers – a company that has been mentioned in countless hip hop songs.
‘Young b****** is grazed, each block is like a maze
Full of black rats trapped, plus the Island is packed’
From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back, black
I’m livin’ where the nights is jet black
The fiends fight to get crack, I just max, I dream I can sit back’
The hostility of the streets are stressed here with the vivid ‘maze full of black rats’ a powerful image of imprisonment, pestilence and despair. Essentially, ‘Maze(s)’ are designed to confuse people and make them lose their way. This makes it seem like the people in Nas’ community are lost and confused as they live in such a detrimental, complex society.
The use of the term ‘rats’ may also refer to lab rats and thusly a perverted social experiment. This is a possible metaphor for the oppression of institutionalisation in ghetto neighbourhoods. The reference to ‘the Island’ is that of Riker’s Island, a notorious prison Nas describes as inhabiting his ‘peoples’.
Nas is living in a visually ‘jet black’ place, but also a mentally ‘black’ or dark place along with the people he represents from Queensbridge. The use of ‘jet’ intensifies the setting visually, however, the word also refers to a plane that flies at high speeds; maybe Nas uses this to allude to leaving his hostile hometown to achieve a sort of emancipation.
The alliteration of ‘fiends fight’ makes us imagine Nas relaxing and watching a commonplace and comical spectacle. Previously, Nas described fighting for survival in his neighbourhood in a literal and vital sense, whereas this ‘fight’ is between addicts and is petty and desperate over a death inducing product. In this instance, people will kill, only to eventually be killed, by what they killed for.
‘I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane
Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain
And be prosperous, though we live dangerous
Cops could just arrest me, blamin’ us, we’re held like hostages’
Nas questions his sanity but not in the way one would think. The oppressive environment that Nas is in could naturally brew forms of insanity, but, it is Nas’ own intellect and talents that make him question his mindset. The profundity of the following bar pits ‘Life’ against ‘Hell’.
Nas has been struck by so much affliction and negativity that ‘Hell’, which we associate with the worst of things, is what ‘Life’ is like for him. He ‘must maintain’ both his sanity and his actual life. He mentions the benefits of “maintaining” as ‘prosperous’, before the juxtaposition with ‘dangerous’ diminishes the idea.
Nas continues to discuss the dangers around him yet this time he is talking about law enforcement. This issue entails the abuse of power by police officers and is still a problem in American society to this day. The final line of the passage uses a clever interior rhyme. Nas uses syllable rhyming to make one word rhyme with three: ‘Cops could just’ and ‘hostages’. This intricate style explains to us why Nas raps: ‘I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane’.
A few bars later, Nas states that his ‘rhymin’ is a vitamin, held without a capsule’. He claims his raps give people health benefits and the image, ‘without a capsule’, makes it easier to consume. An allusion to Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ is seen when Nas notes that he is ‘the smooth criminal of beat breaks’, seamless and ‘smooth’ as he raps – which MJ presents via his iconic, perfect dance moves.
Further on, Nas spits the line, ‘the city never sleeps’, which is an even closer phrase to that of New York’s aforementioned metonym from verse one. This bar is used as a set-up for the concluding line, ‘I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death’ as Nas elaborates on the end of the first verse. He reveals that the city is sleepless because of the ‘villains and creeps’ dwelling within its boundaries being active and threatening day and night.
‘I lay puzzled as I backtrack to earlier times
Nothing’s equivalent, to the New York state of mind’
Nas ‘lay(s) puzzled’ thinking of ‘earlier times’ maybe as a youth when life was care-free and happy or when close ones who have died were around. The bar also provokes listeners to ‘backtrack’ and reflect on the events Nas discussed in the track. ‘Nothing’s equivalent, to the New York state of mind’ clarifies the unique experiences and activities that take place in ‘New York’ as inequivalent to anything in the world for Nas. This mindset is characterised by crime, money, hard work ethic and intuition. These final four bars are befitting for a poem and remind us of Nas and his street poetry.