It’s nearly impossible to discuss New York City Hip Hop and not include Nas’ classic album, Illmatic. Steeped in technique and legendary story-telling, calling Illmatic anything less than iconic would be an injustice to the craft. Nas’ lyrics are street poetry at its best, and the themes of the album — ghetto living, violence, survival — all build a narrative of life in the projects that is so heart-wrenchingly precise, just merely giving it a spin is not an option. This is an album that deserves full attention, multiple plays, and then some time afterward to sit and think about what was just pounded into the brain. Throw in the fact that this is Nas’ first full-length, and recorded when he was only 19 years old, and it’s not difficult to argue its status as one of Hip Hop’s finest efforts since the beat first met wax.
Now, as Illmatic hits its twentieth anniversary, it’s time to celebrate it again. One of the best songs on the album, “NY State of Mind,” ties the album’s themes, and who Nas is as a performer and a person, into a five minute, two-verse package filled with bars of technical fire describing New York in the '90s, where crime was not a celebrated method to get rich, but a way of life.
Right off the bat, “NY State of Mind” offers the juxtaposition of the will to wield the pen rather than the gun and yet how living in the projects forces one into violence. Nas paints a picture of street life, and the only escape is not just to write and rhyme, but to be the best at all of the above: rapping, hustling, and quick thinking when things don’t pan out as planned. All of this is displayed in a style that is nothing short of impeccable, with a verse heavy on imagery and narrative. A few bars:
“Inflictin’ composition/ of pain, I’m like Scarface sniffing cocaine / Holding an M16, see with the pen I’m extreme, now / bullet holes left in my peepholes, I’m suited up in street clothes / Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes.”
And further into the same verse, a sad reflection on the indiscriminate nature of the street, claiming lives of all ages:
“It’s like the game ain’t the same / Got younger niggas pulling the triggers, bringing fame to their name / And claim some corners, crews without guns are goners / In broad daylight, stick up kids, they run up on us.”
On and on the bars fly by, until Nas spits the end of the verse:
“Beyond the wall of intelligence life is defined / I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.”
Adding to the complexity of the song are the samples put down by DJ Premier. More than just a structure for Nas to rhyme over, the samples add another piece of Nas’ self identity to the track. Primo samples two Jazz tunes — Joe Cambers’ “Mind Rain,” and Donald Byrd’s “Flight Time” — to make up the famous off-key piano and high-pitched guitar riffs. The fact that these are Jazz samples is no happy accident. Nas’ father is Jazz musician Olu Dara (who makes a musical appearance on the Illmatic track “Life’s a Bitch”), and the samples are a hat tip to the early influence music had on Nas. And of course, the chorus, simply the line “New York state of mind,” is a lyric scratched from the Eric B and Rakim track, “Mahogany,” another nod from Nas to an early music influence.
In the second verse, we hear Nas wrestle further with being top in the street and Rap games, but also his frustrations with race discrimination, police, and again, the violence all of these aspects of New York City ghetto living drives one to. On one hand, Nas raps about lining his pockets with drug money, but there’s also the understanding that in living this way, he’s just another hood gangster. From the top of the second verse:
“Be having dreams that I’m a gangster; drinking Moets, holding Tecs / Making sure the cash come correct, then I stepped / Investments in stocks, sewing up the blocks to sell rocks / Winning gunfights with mega-cops / But just another nigga walking with his finger on the trigger.”
And then deeper into the verse, commentary on New York’s prisons disproportionately filled with African Americans from the projects, victims of the environment that surrounds them, and of an overzealous police force all too ready to slap cuffs onto someone just living the daily struggle:
“Each block is 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 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 living dangerous, cops could just / arrest me, blaming us, we’re held like hostages.”
It cannot be overstated that putting social commentary like that to song and in an anthemic fashion, especially in such a visceral manner, was vastly important at the time. Inner city aggression was largely seen as a characteristic of race. For Nas to frame all of it as a struggle — from the survival of the street game to trying to escape the “maze” of social inequities placed on those forced to live in the projects — gave voice to an entire generation of people frustrated with the lives they were forced to live. This wasn’t celebrating the life of a gangster, rather, it was announcing the necessity of slipping into a “New York state of mind” in order to survive.
And so, perhaps the best way to wrap all of this up is to let the final bars from the last verse of the song do the talking:
“I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times / Nothing’s equivalent to the New York state of mind.”