Nas, Illmatic – ‘The World Is Yours’ BREAKDOWN
The 1983 film ‘Scarface’ is probably the most referenced movie in hip hop history and Nas’ names his song after the phrase embossed on a sculpture seen the film’s denouement. The phrase itself originates from the original 1932 version of the movie. The impact of De Palma’s Scarface on hip hop was immense and influenced parts of Nas’ Illmatic. Another example bar the song’s title is the line ‘I’m like Scarface, sniffin’ cocaine’ from ‘NY State Of Mind’.
The song has many layers and meanings. The idea of the world being yours is similar to the Shakespearean notion that ‘All the world’s a stage’ or ‘The world is your oyster’. Therefore, Nas roots the track to this central motivational and conducive idea. In a way, he uses the title to promote the optimism associated with chasing ‘The American Dream’, regardless of its unattainability and probable fallacy, it is a moral incentive and hope to residents.
‘The World Is Yours’ is the fourth track on Illmatic and is a popular classic and highlight of an already gleaming album.
The track starts off with chorus :
‘It’s yours / Whose world is this? / The world is yours, the world is yours / It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine / Whose world is this? / It’s yours / It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine / Whose world is this? / The world is yours, the world is yours / It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine / Whose world is this?’
This section introduces a repetitive and catchy refrain embedding the core message of the song from the very first seconds. In the chorus, Nas voices two characters. The first is the deliverer of the question i.e. we the audience, and the second is Nas himself. The last bar is a question, which begs its full explanation and answer. This transitions smoothly into the first verse.
The verse is a quintessential sixteen bar long section and begins by Nas ‘sip(ping) the Dom P’ and getting ‘charged up’ by watching the film ‘Gandhi’ as a preparation before he writes his rhymes.
‘Writin’ in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin’
Here, Nas’ multitudinous raps fill an entire page in his notebook ‘past the margin’. This is an indication of his work ethic but also a mark of the wealth of rhymes he writes and conjures. His prowess as a wordsmith is also referenced in other tracks on Illmatic e.g. ‘My vocabulary spills, I’m Ill plus Matic’ and ‘Wisdom be leaking out my grapefruit’ from ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’.
Nas raps that his music is ‘smooth shit’ that ‘murderers move with’. This gives us the image of ‘murderers’ or thugs etc. blasting Nas’ music in their cars while committing crime (evidently murder in this case). This bar may also be a nod to Michael Jackson’s classic hit song ‘Smooth Criminal’. Nas mentions that he is ‘The fiend of hip hop’, a dominant villain in the game. ‘[F]iend’ also means addict, which is testament to Nas’ undying love for rap but.
‘I can’t call it, the beats make me fallin’ asleep,
I keep fallin’ but never fallin’ six feet deep’
Nas’ verified Genius annotations show a video of him explaining this bar. He notes that when he is rhyming and making beats etc. he falls “into a dream state”. This is an interesting take as in the next line he asserts that he will ‘never (be) fallin’ six feet deep’. The allusion of sleep and death is a strong idea and is present most prevalently in another track off the album, ‘NY State Of Mind’, where Nas spits the famous lyric, ‘I never sleep ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death’.
The verse concludes with yet another famous sequence of words:
‘I’m out for presidents to represent me (Say what?)
I’m out for presidents to represent me (Say what?)
I’m out for dead presidents to represent me.’
Nas repeats the phrase above twice and in each instance he is asked ‘Say what?’ as nobody is listening to him. Therefore, he presents the idea that no ‘president’ will/could represent him or his hood, so he hopes for ‘dead presidents to represent me’ instead. In this bar, Nas’ clever wordplay alludes to money as the American dollar bill features the images of ‘dead presidents’. Nas wishes that the accumulation of his wealth and power will represent him when he is gone.
The chorus echoes before the second verse which starts off by paying homage to Nas’ close friend ‘Ill Will’ who was killed as a youth. Further down, he writes:
‘Yet I’m the mild, money-gettin’ style, rollin’ foul,
The versatile, honey-stickin’, wild, golden child’
Albeit Nas suffers from poverty, he is still focused on his ‘money-gettin’ style’. He notes that he is a ‘golden child’ who has never done wrong and is loved by everyone. What’s most impressive in these bars is the rhyming. Nas manages to string together six rhymes in two lines that flow with almost the exact same spacing between one another.
‘Dwellin’ in the Rotten Apple, you get tackled,
Or caught by the devil’s lasso, shit a hassle’
The apt description of ‘the Rotten Apple’ gives us a clear insight into Nas’ perspective of his city. He twists the classic New York metonym of ‘The Big Apple’ to assert his view of the city. The word ‘Rotten’ is also a deterrent for people outside of New York who may have had adoration for “The city that never sleeps” until Nas exposes its facade. The imagery of natural decay portrays New York as ugly and abhorrent.
Nas is only in his early twenties and is contemplating the names of his future children.
‘Thinkin’ of a word best describin’ my life to name my daughter,
My strength, my son, the start will be my resurrection,
Born in correction, all the wrong shit I did,
He’ll lead a right direction’
He wants to come up with a word which best defines his life to name his daughter. This name would forever serve as a reminder to her that Nas is her father even after he passes away. He hopes that his son ‘will be my resurrection’ as someone who will not do ‘all the wrong shit I did’. He emphasises his adoration for a family which is a mature trait for such a young person.
The penultimate verse concludes with the line:
‘You flippin’ coke or playin’ spit, spades and strip poker?’
Nas stresses that ‘flippin’ coke’ must be prioritised over gambling in the form of poker. Nas’ uses alliteration to end the verse and shows that no type of poker or gambling are as important as drug dealing. The verse ends with a rhetorical question which pokes fun at those who gamble for money instead of selling drugs for a guaranteed wage with ‘strip poker’ providing a particularly embarrassing image.
The chorus plays for the third time and is followed by the bridge, ‘Break it down / It’s yours / It’s yours’, which flows on toward the final verse.
‘I’m the young city bandit, hold myself down single-handed’
The opening bar stresses the ‘single-handed’ nature of Nas’ movement. This is Nas telling us that he does not need a group or crew to support him; he is self-sufficient in the face of danger. Also, the idea of a ‘young city bandit’ indicates Nas’ age, which adds to his bravery in the hostile ills of the ghetto. Overall, Nas is the real deal and not a fake thug/gangster-type.
‘Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne’
Nas talks of the “human condition” which refers to the reality of one entering and leaving the world on their own. This solitary state initiates a crude poetic line of thought embedded fatalism. Nas says that there would be ‘no crew to keep my crown or throne’ as he is a solo artist which may also mean that he believes that nobody could fill his shoes if he leaves the Earth.
Nas was rapping in ’94 during the revival and reassertion of New York hip hop as a dominant force with Snoop and Dre having ruled rap from the West Coast. It was clear that before ‘Illmatic’ and The Notorious BIG’s ‘Ready To Die’ (1994) the West Coast hip hop scene were at the helm rap. This rejuvenation was key in sparking the rivalry and infamous and profound beef between the East and West coast hip hop scenes of America in the mid-nineties.
‘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’
The proverbial ‘black cloud’ resembles depression and pessimism and Nas needs this to clear so that he can proceed with his life. He wants someone ‘new’ to carry this overwhelming burden before he loses his sanity. Nas opens up about his struggles with depression to give an introspective, personal tone to the song. This self-analysis is most fervently explored on his 2002 project ‘The Lost Tapes’. The use of the colour ‘black’ is also linked with the stereotypical description of an African-American
Nas mentions that he is ‘Tryin’ to maintain’ by selling drugs and being armed so that he can help provide for his people who are ‘not eatin’’ because they are poverty stricken. Nas’ has great love and loyalty for his crew.
Later in the verse, Nas alludes to Mike Tyson’s infamous 1992 imprisonment:
‘And I’m amped up, they locked the champ up,
Even my brain’s in handcuffs,
Headed for Indiana’
What’s interesting about these lines is the metaphor about the mind being ‘in handcuffs’. The use of prison imagery represents hopelessness and helplessness and this adds to Nas’ frustration at Tyson’s incarceration.
Nas notes ‘Burnin’ dollars to light my stage’ as one would do if they possess a wealth of currency. This is a classic bragadocious hip hop statement as Nas’ excess money is worthless to him. This image represents the growth of Nas and his crew up until his rap acclaim. An iconic example of money burning is found in Christopher Nolan’s, ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), when, near the end of the movie, ‘The Joker’ burns tonnes of money. This is done in scorn but is comparable in that it is a stunt deeming money useless.
The final bars incorporate a lot of alliteration with the letter “P” – possibly the sound of sustained gunfire. The mention of the ‘problems of the world today’ shows Nas’ awareness of social issues and is a hark back to a song of the same name by the Fearless Four from the early eighties.
The outro sees Nas telling us that his home borough of Queens is ‘the foundation’ i.e. his origin which he will never forget. He also shouts out a number of other parts of New York: Brooklyn, Uptown, Mt. Vermont, Long Island, Staten Island and South Bronx. These shoutouts are commonplace in the album and reflect the real life basis of Nas’ stories as he mentions people and places relevant in each track as well as fellow rappers and producers.
Overall, this song is simply outstanding in every way.