Nas, Illmatic – ‘Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)’ BREAKDOWN
The sixth track off ‘Illmatic’ is an introspective dive into Nas’ childhood hence its title. Nas reminisces on past experiences as a youth and their fast-paced, scarring effect on the way he views the world and by effect, their shaping of him as a more mature individual. DJ Premier produces the track with his sublime sampling of Reuben Wilson’s ‘We’re in Love’.
Nas sparks the first verse by listing the various audiences he attracts as a way of demonstrating his wide range appeal. Two lines further down Nas details dropping ‘out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie-pie’ which is an allusion to him leaving school in order to pursue studies related to music, hip hop, African culture/history/heritage after his parents’ divorce. The last part of the bar may also reveal that Nas in fact left school to pursue a girl.
‘Poetry, that’s a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip hop straight off the block’
Nas is revered as ‘the street poet’ and his love for poetry is displayed here. He is telling us that his raps (works of poetry) are prophetic and ‘ancient’, precious scriptures which engage listeners who ‘retardedly bop’ to it on the streets. This ‘bop’ is the result of Nas’ music fusing hip hop and jazz just as the pioneers (‘ancient’) had done.
‘I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Choco blunt’ll make me see him drop in my weed smoke’
Nas’ friend was murdered for his luxury coat during a ‘park jam(s)’. The juxtaposing of ‘park jams’ – joyous congregations – and being ‘shot for his sheep coat’ – violent and tragic – show us the prevalence of crime in Nas’ past and his marred memories. This traumatic event seems to surface when Nas’ is high on ‘weed smoke’.
‘It’s real, grew up in the trife life, the times of white lines, the high pipes
Murderous night times and knife fights invite crimes’
This rhyme heavy, lyrical pair of bars sums up the hostile and often lethal environment Nas grew up in. He begins with the pre-cursor of ‘It’s real’ before noting the typical lifestyle of a black person in Queensbridge, NY. He refers to ‘the trife life’ which involved incessant crime and drug taking. The double-entendre of ‘white lines’ relates to snorting cocaine ‘lines’ or ‘white’ chalked body outlines at a crime scene.
‘No sign of the beast in the blue Chrysler
I guess that means peace
For n*****, no shiesty vice to just snipe ya’
Nas gives us the image of predatory police (‘the beast’) who threaten and keep he and those around him on edge; their absence is relieving and peaceful. The phrase ‘no shiesty vice’ refers to there being no crime or ‘vice’ taking place to warrant a violent police intervening. Nas gives another example of the utter fright invoked upon deprived, largely black communities who are left with no other choice but to oppose and detest the authorities.
The first verse concludes with Nas telling us that he is taking us ‘on a trip straight through memory lane’ which is the general gist of the song. He ends with a bridging bar to the chorus ‘It’s like that, y’all’ – a line used by Nasty Nas in the hook of the famous ‘Live at the BBQ’ record.
The chorus samples lines from Biz Markie (‘“Now let me take a trip down memory lane”’) and Craig G. (‘“Comin’ outta Queensbridge”’) to form a simple but catchy hook. As is stated in my other Illmatic breakdowns, this simplicity is used so effectively and reflects the classic 90s period in hip hop. DJ Premier’s legendary producing of this song mixes these two lines seamlessly which is sonically pleasing.
Verse two kicks off with lines detailing Nas’ passions and priorities. He delivers the bars as a twist on the phrase coined by Elvis Presley ‘one for the money, two for the show’ which thereafter has been used widely in hip hop (see ‘All Outta Ale by MF DOOM).
‘My window faces shootouts , drug overdoses
Live amongst no roses, only the drama’
This reflects the numerous bleak experiences Nas had witnessed from his window in the projects which as a matter of fact, are the basis for much of the themes and events discusses in Illmatic. Nas uses floral, natural imagery as a measure of positivity and beauty and jars this with its complete absence and replacement with rampant ‘drama’ and despair.
‘Peoples are petro, dramatic automatic .44 I let blow
And back down po-po when I’m vexed, so’
Nas uses the intensifier of ‘dramatic’ to set up a scene of danger and aggression which is released when he is ‘vexed’ by the ‘po-po’ in the form of an ‘automatic .44’. The ingenious alliterative effect of ‘People are petro (petrified)’ and ‘po-po’ is onomatopoeic for gunfire.
Further down, Nas informs us on his method to overcome writer’s block. He tells us that he thinks of the streets of Queensbridge and the struggle, crime which takes place there. This is a true mark of Nas’ rapping genius and being in-tune with his environment. He describes ‘hustlin’ brothers’ and ‘dark streets’ to show us the menacing nature of his reality and by effect his raps.
‘Judges hangin’ n****s, uncurrent bails for direct sales
My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails
I reinforce the frail with lyrics that’s real’
These bars deal with the injustice of the justice system and its knock-on effects. Nas uses an antimetabole with the word ‘hangin’’ meaning the literal hanging of a person at the hands of a judge (reflective of the subjugation of African Americans by Jim Crow Laws of the mid-twentieth century) and the crucifixion of Jesus. Despite this ardour and deep struggle, Nas’ ‘intellect prevails’ and he perseveres with his aim to comfort and relate to ‘the frail’ with his ‘real’ ‘lyrics’.
‘I hung around the older crews while they sling smack to dingbats
They spoke of Fat Cat: that n***’s name made bell rings, black’
Nas tells us that he ‘hung around the older crews’ as a means of gaining street knowledge. He mentions ‘dingbats’ (an idiot or fool) to accurately describe the suppliers’ customers. Nas then talks of ‘Fat Cat’ who was a well-known figure in NY in the streets of Queens. Here, his respect and influence is seen as his very name evokes a sense of danger and memory of stories.
The final verse ends with the lines:
‘Never talkin’ to snakes, ‘cause the words of man kill
True in the game, as long as blood is blue in my vein
I pour my Heineken brew to my deceased crew on memory lane.’
Nas reasserts his moral code which involves the idea of never snitching on his crew. He describes ‘words’ as deadly as a ratted out rat faces certain death from those he betrayed. Nas solidifies his rejection of any form of snitching with the image that as long as his blood is ‘blue in my vein’ he is keeping quiet. This is a clever mash up of imagery to assert Nas’ loyalty to his crew until the day he dies and bleeds out.
The final line sees Nas pouring out liquor to those who have died in his crew on ‘memory lane’ which he is reimagining as an actual street/lane. This adds extra significance to the song title as ‘Memory Lane’ is both literal and metaphorical to Nas, a real life experience and a mental existence. Nas’ praise is very high on The Cult Factor and is merited once more as he adds a dimension of realism to the common phrase of taking ‘a trip down memory lane’. Nas’ song is deep and personal, and this allusion is a lyrical emceeing piece of gold.
The hook follows before a record scratching masterclass outro by DJ Premier. He use the Craig G. sample from the chorus and has it on loop gradually adding the line ‘The most dangerous MC is…’ until ending on the line, ‘Me number one, and you know where me from’ – a statement that Nas is better than all of his peers.