Nas, Illmatic – ‘Life’s A Bitch’ BREAKDOWN
‘Life’s A Bitch’ is the only track on Illmatic with a guest feature with AZ providing a stellar opening verse and chorus. At the time, AZ was an up and coming rapper from Brooklyn, NY and Nas certainly thought highly of his talents to warrant him a feature on what went on to become one of the most revered, acclaimed debut albums of all time.
The track begins with a conversation between Nas and his friends discussing the distribution of drug money. Nas describes the cash in terms of the US presidents depicted on each bill i.e. he puts ‘Grants’ in a safe – a ‘Grant’ being a fifty dollar bill named after President Ulysses S. Grant; he notes ‘spendin’ these Jacksons’ (POTUS Andrew Jackson) i.e. twenty dollar bills. Among this, Nas amusingly notes that ‘The Washington’s go to wifey’, ‘Washington’s’ being single dollar bills.
Following this discussion are the iconic bars, ‘that’s what it’s all about right? / Clothes, bank rolls and hoes’ before AZ gives his verse. These lines and their variations have been widely quoted in hip hop by rappers including The Notorious B.I.G. (peep the bar ‘money, hoes and clothes all a n**** knows’).
Verse One [by AZ] :
‘Visualizin’ the realism of life in actuality,
F*** who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary,
And my mentality is money-orientated’
The opening lines see AZ framing the reality of human existence, where the government make money the paramount necessity for survival. Therefore, AZ puts one’s ‘salary’ as the marking factor of ‘a person’s status’ rather than their street notoriety. This cancels out the culture of street credentials defining one’s worth and respect.
The next line sees AZ paying homage to all of his ‘peeps who never made it’. He says that he will ‘live the dream’ for them. These deaths are another example of murder and crime plagued ghetto neighbourhoods. AZ is now in a position where he can achieve his dreams which his friends could not due to their untimely demise; he will never forget the fallen ones.
AZ carries this theme a few lines down by talking about those ‘who turned sinners’ either ‘restin’ in peace’ or ‘sittin’ in St. Quentin’ (in prison). He highlights once again what I liken to the ‘ills of the ghetto hood’ (2Pac, ‘Do For Love’) where death or incarceration are the only outcomes for black men in deprived environments.
‘Others, such as myself, are tryin’ to carry on tradition’
The “old school” way of doing things through street codes, respect and so on are dying out so AZ and Nas are ‘tryin’ to carry on (this) tradition’. The action of ‘tryin’ to’ shows the struggle to maintain these standards as time naturally changes everything. The ‘tradition’ may also refer to the musical style and level of ability Nas, AZ and other top tier emcees are sustaining. Unfortunately, this lyrical passion has clearly faded away to a degree in today’s hip hop game.
‘Keepin’ this Schweppervescent street ghetto essence inside us,
‘Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us’
These bars are technically brilliant from the complex, multi-syllabic rhyming to the word play. The term ‘Schweppervescent’ is a unique amalgamation of words. ‘Schwepps’ being a popular brand of fizzy drink associated with alcohol infusion and the adjoining word being ‘effervescent’ (being bubbly). The meaning of the term refers to liveliness and agency which describes the ‘street ghetto essence’. This liveliness is seen as something that guides AZ and his people.
‘Even though we know, some way we all gotta go,
But as long as we leavin’ thievin’,
We’ll be leavin’ some kind of dough.’
AZ reiterates the fact that everybody dies and their material possessions are rendered useless and pointless. This is a dark image, but AZ tells us that ‘as long we leavin’ thievin’’ we’ll leave something behind. We can also interpret ‘leavin’ some kind of dough’ as being buried with one’s own riches. Or a more literal meaning can indicate that AZ and Nas et al will move to another place, out of the area they are in.
‘So, until that day we expire and turn to vapors,
Me and my capers will be somewhere stackin’ plenty papers’
Keepin’ it real, packin’ steel, gettin’ high
‘Cause life’s a bitch and then you die’
AZ is stating a certainty that he and his crew will be ‘stackin’ plenty papers’ (money) before they die. He tells us that we can only enjoy money and wealth until we dies so why not make the most of it. The verse ends with the idea of being ‘real’, ‘packin’ steel’ and ‘getting’ high’. The major vices of murder and drugs that help people in AZ’s position to survive in a life described aptly as ‘a bitch’.
Overall, AZ’s verse is perceived as a one of, if not the greatest features in hip hop history with him being one of the very few rappers to outshine Nas on a track let alone Nas’ own track.
AZ passionately raps the chorus, repeating the lines:
‘Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high’
‘‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go’
‘Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we puff lye’
This is an expansion of the last line of verse one and is an affirmation of the idea that ‘life’s a bitch’ and the only way to cope with its pitfalls is by ‘get(ting) high’ through ‘puff(ng) lye’ (marijuana).
Verse 2 by Nas begins:
‘I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessin’
The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh and’
Nas describes his 20th birthday as a blessing as he has survived in a murder-ridden society for two decades. The second line tells us that the ‘blessin’’ Nas is referring to is that he has left his adolescence. He feels like an adult and ‘fresh’ as he is older and more experienced. The idea of an ‘essence of adolescence’ can refer to the end of the final chapters of puberty also.
‘Don’t go against the grain, simple and plain’ – Here, Nas warns us not to transgress boundaries or do anything ‘against the grain’ possibly due to personal experience which is saying something given he is only twenty. Notice that he switches the phrasing of the phase, “plain and simple” to fit the in the end-rhyme – a commonality in rap. The ‘grain’ here refers to the uneven surface of wood and going ‘against’ it is painful i.e. dangerous.
‘When I was young at this I used to do my thing hard
Robbin’ foreigners, taking they wallets, they jewels, rippin’ up green cards’
Nas delves into his childhood where he used to rob ‘foreigners’ and was ‘rippin’ up green cards’. Taken literally, the latter would invalidate a foreigner’s access to the country. Nas uses this as a metaphor about outsiders who want to enter his hometown. Hence, he resorted to robbing ‘foreigners’ to deter them from encroaching on his neighbourhood.
‘N****as I used to run with is rich or doin’ years in the hundreds’
A hark back to AZ’s ‘resting in peace’ or serving time at ‘St. Quentin’ bars in verse one, but Nas’ view is a more positive one. It shows the reaping of rewards illegally as a dangerous but profitable campaign. However, if you’re caught doing these highly illegal affairs, you’ll be ‘doin’ years in the hundreds’ in prison. Nas ‘used to run with’ people on each side of this scale but is now a bona fide member of the rap game instead.
‘I switched my motto; instead of sayin’, “F*** tomorrow!”,
That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto’
Nas explains his new outlook on life. Instead of hating on the world, he is valuing his time on it. He realises that a ‘buck’ used to buy a drink ‘could’ve struck the lotto’ if used to place a bet. This realisation shows Nas’ maturity as he sees multiple sides and outcomes to the smallest of life’s decisions. This links back to his transition into “adulthood” as he turns 20 early in the track.
‘Time is Illmatic keep static like wool fabric’
This line gives us some context into the album name ‘Illmatic’. The idea of ‘static’ refers to electricity and is also an old school term for beef. Also, ‘wool fabric’ is notably ‘static’. These two terms referring to electricity may symbolise something erratic or uncontrollable which Nas links to the concept of ‘Time’. Therefore, ‘Illmatic’ may be a state of overwhelmingness or craziness.
The final line of the second verse is a violent image of ‘pack(ing) a 4-matic to crack your whole cabbage’ (head). The ‘4-matic’ refers to an automatic .40 (or more) calibre gun that reloads automatically.
In a nutshell, this song takes you on a journey through the hardships Nas, AZ and those in similar circumstances endure and after explaining them to us Nas ‘crack(s) [y]our whole cabbage’ with a gunshot. This aptly epitomises the phrase ‘life’s a bitch and then you die’. The chorus then plays to round off the track.
‘Life’s A Bitch’ is one of those rare timeless classics, similar to many tracks on the album, with its content resonating till this day and production sounding as fresh ever. Its simple, yet extremely profound message and essence astounds listeners old and new.