Nas’s Illmatic (1994), a landmark East Coast album, delves into street dynamics that typify his life and many of his relations in the inner-city ghetto. In particular, the tracks “N.Y. State of Mind” and “One Love” stand out as intense and emotionally packed depictions of his life, and I chose to wrestle with and emulate these songs when crafting my own creative piece. “N.Y. State of Mind,” composed with brooding jazz samples and sour piano notes, functions as a lyrical display of Nas’s braggadocious character and storytelling ability. While logically weaving intricate rhymes from line to line, Nas formulates vivid anecdotes that capture the hectic and dangerous experiences on the streets. His lyrics provide a detailed look into the criminal street life which epitomizes Nas’s “New York state of mind,” for example, his lines
G-packs get off quick . . .
Reminiscin’ about the last time the task force for flipped . . .
Lead was hittin’ niggas, one ran, I made him back flip
Heard a few chicks scream, my arm shook, couldn’t look
Gave another squeeze, heard it click, ‘Yo my shit is stuck!’1
The slang of “G-packs” and “task force” (Relating to wholesale packs of ecstasy and the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums or C.R.A.S.H, respectively) in conjunction with the auditory evocations in “chicks scream” and gun clicks form an intimate listening experience with those from Queensbridge, appealing to the community’s rich association with these expressions and sounds. However, Nas writes moving lines intelligible to outsiders toward the end of the track, propelling the inescapable roughness of street life further:
Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain
And be prosperous, though we live dangerous
Cops could just arrest me, blaming’ us; we’re held like hostages.2.
Further down the tracklist, Nas’s “One Love” continues communicating deadly and violent lyrics similar to “N.Y. State of Mind” but takes his unique storytelling a step further. Structured as letters to a friend in prison, Nas bridges the gap between senseless gang violence and emotional vulnerability experienced in the ghetto. To listeners it becomes clear that the effects of crime and incarceration in the Queensbridge projects extend further from gun-toting gangsters and drugged-out vagrants. Families are affected and easily broken up when the police intervene, locking those up who attempt to survive the only way they know how. Nas effectively demonstrates this, and imbues hard-hitting, emotional, and isolated tones through his lyrics
Plus congratulations you know you got a son
I heard he looks like you, why don’t your lady write you?
But yo, guess who got shot in the dome piece?
Jerome’s niece on her home from Jones Beach
Plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime3
In physically placing his congratulations of his friend’s new son near the death of “Jerome’s niece” and the news of “Little Rob” beginning to sell drugs, Nas’s “congratulation” mutates into something tragic. It is as if Nas’s juxtaposition of these descriptions serves to predict the life of his friend’s child, either ending up dead or involved in gang activities. This intimate yet dreadfully realistic style of music that Nas manifests exposes the painful inevitability that is present amongst the lives of people in Queensbridge.
For as long as music has existed, artists have used it as an essential tool for self and societal expression, proving how influential the integration of mastered lyrics and beats can be. Nas utilizes his artistic abilities to bring awareness to his personal struggles but also shed light on the daily life of millions of others. In constructing my creative piece, I hope to mimic his intimate epistolary format from “One Love,” while incorporating the characteristic slang and detailed imagery from “N.Y. State of Mind.”
I get nostalgic when it’s hot out—when the sun’s out.
Riding in the breeze with the top down, passing it around
Cruising down Grape Street . . . gunshot sounds.
We take a quick vacation,
And post up to smoke that loud.
Drug dependencies manifested in large clouds.
Meecho and OB concealed carry large rounds.
I did my best to support you T,
kept you away from them clowns.
Shit, I drove you to school,
When your sister was out.
But I can’t hold back,
I’m sorry Marcus ain’t out.
Thirteen inmate deaths last year,
family’s all that we got now.
But I’m three thousand miles away,
praying your life will reroute.
New York City streets
A concrete jungle
I want to chase my dreams,
But I’ll keep chasing degrees,
Just like a protractor speaks
I hope my example of hard work,
Positively affects your god-awful tendencies.
Polluted air, I can’t breathe.
Check the clock at Grand Central,
Watch the S train leave.
As I ponder my mental,
I realize time’s running out.
What will I achieve?
Wonder if I’ll rise to the top like Illmatic,
Or Diddy or B.I.G.
“Please Kill Me,” wonder if in a past life,
I was jamming at CBGB’s.
I’m isolated with so many around,
I try to hit your line but static is the only sound.
I pray to god your phone is dead or the bill isn’t paid,
I’m used to the bloodshed, so of course I’m afraid.
Daygo is your city, and NYC is now mine.
I just wanna taste the Big Apple,
And stay on my grind.
One day you’ll fly out,
away from the crime.
Take care of our mothers,
bring tears of joy from their eyes.
And tell the boys back home
that this process takes time.