The Timeless Impact Of “Illmatic": Hip-Hop’s Love Of Nas’s Debut Album 30 Years Later

BYGabriel Bras Nevares1060 Views
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Hip Hop 50 Live
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 11: Nas performs onstage during Hip Hop 50 Live at Yankee Stadium on August 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones is one of the most influential writers of our time, and what better time to celebrate that than this classic's 30th birthday?

Hip-hop's history books contain millions of enduring statements, infinite ideas, and indelible expressions penned by hundreds of thousands of students of the game. Thousands of them got their brilliance delivered to mass audiences, hundreds reached the peak highs of their time and style, and dozens have transcended the genre into a status of cultural ubiquity. But out of all of these writers who shaped the philosophies, language, and communication of rap music, there is a strong case that, along with The God MC Rakim, none have been more influential or definitive than Nas. We took it upon ourselves to accept that challenge and see just how pivotal Esco's pen has been to the community.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his classic album Illmatic yesterday (Friday, April 19), we listed out seven of the most quoted lyrics, motifs, or refrains from this magnum opus across hip-hop's history, along with just a few of many examples. As arguably the greatest LP the genre has to offer, a status that only a handful of rap records can claim, there is obviously so much more to say, and many more lines that you'll hear in songs released since '94. But these are among the bars on the project that most closely evoke its narratives in your head when you hear them in another song or everyday conversation. We'd love to know your picks, as we certainly missed a lot, so join us in celebrating this masterpiece and thanking Nas for his craft and creations down in the comments section below.

I Never Sleep, 'Cause Sleep Is The Cousin Of Death ("N.Y. State Of Mind")

While this phrase obviously existed before Illmatic's release, no rapper spits it today without evoking Nas' "N.Y. State Of Mind." It's a phrase that perfectly fits within the vivid description of Queens' street life and placed the album into a special era; a coming-of-age tale that inspired countless others put their unique spin on. Over the years, we've heard the greats reference this specific bar including J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Denzel Curry, and The Game.

Furthermore, the most famous of these is likely Lil Wayne's "6 Foot 7 Foot," which actually references another Illmatic bar we'll get into later. "Life is a b***h, and death is her sister / Sleep is the cousin, what a f***ing family picture," Weezy raps on the cut. Another notable modern example is $UICIDEBOY$' 2016 cut "AM/PM," on which Ruby raps: "If sleep is the cousin of death, I guess me and $lick counting sheep 'til we out of breath." From '90s East Coast hardcore to 2010s New Orleans horrorcore-adjacent trap; who would've thought?

The World Is Yours / I'm Out For Dead Presidents To Represent Me ("The World Is Yours")

Here's a two-parter, mainly because the mere title of "The World Is Yours" and the "It's mine, it's mine, it's mine, whose world is this?" refrain lives on in a lot of rap media: bars, interviews, promo material, movies... you name it. J. Cole has an early song titled "Who's World Is This?" and there's also Blu's classic album with Exile, Below The Heavens, with the track "The World Is." Out of the many enduring Nas bars on this song, one of them is the money-focused, "I'm out for dead presidents to represent me." Joey Bada$$, a student of Nasir Jones who references him very often, spits this bar on 1999's "Hardknock," and 2016's "AMERIKKKAN IDOL." Logic does the same on 2012's "All Sinatra Everything," and of course, there's Jay-Z's use of it for his "Dead Presidents" series. That definitely didn't backfire at all...

Life's A B***h And Then You Die... ("Life's A B***h")

Next is AZ's iconic hook on "Life's A B***h": "Life's a b***h and then you die, that's why we get high / 'Cause you never know when you're gonna go." Other than being one of the most cutting and reality-affirming moments on Illmatic, Nas' words here transcended even the hip-hop genre. One of the most curious homages we found in our research was a live version of metal band Deftones' "Teething" from 2001, in which they added this chorus to the track to a pretty hype effect. Just goes to show that these lyrics have etched themselves in musical and cultural history, not just within hip-hop. Back to that, though, some quick examples: Kendrick Lamar's "FEAR.," A$AP Rocky's "Phoenix," Tyler, The Creator's "Lone," and "Headstone" by Flatbush Zombies, which actually references dozens of rap classic throughout its runtime.

Somehow, The Rap Game Reminds Me Of The Crack Game ("Represent")

Here's what Nas had to say about this bar from "Represent": "It's all about getting a dollar, don't trust nobody, keep your eyes open, don't play with nobody, focus on what you're supposed to get out of it. This s**t is dangerous, it'll take you down... What's the difference?" Once again, Jay-Z echoed this sentiment in his 1997 track "Rap Game / Crack Game," and Biggie Smalls references the rhyme scheme on Ready To Die's "Things Done Changed" that same year. "If I wasn't in the rap game, I'd probably have a ki, knee-deep in the crack game." Cam'ron also echoes the bar on "Sports, Drugs & Entertainment," and Benny The Butcher, 38 Spesh, and Elcamino develop the metaphor on 2021's "Blue Money." "Crack game like the rap game but ain’t as safe / If we got the same plug we like label-mates," Spesh spits.

Half Man, Half Amazing ("It Ain't Hard To Tell")

Also, we wanted to shout out Nas' reference to the Five-Percent Nation on this "Human Nature"-sampling cut, "It Ain't Hard To Tell": "Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half man, half amazing." The second half of that bar is the namesake of the third track (featuring Method Man) on Pete Rock's 1998 album Soul Survivor, and also that of cuts from Blocboy JB and more. As for lyrical mentions, Mac Miller does so on the Faces cut "Friends" featuring ScHoolboy Q, Joe Budden gives a nod on "NBA," and 50 Cent used it to belittle Ja Rule on the diss track "Your Life's On The Line." Safe to say, this last example proves that these aren't always very favorable references, at least when it comes to who the bars might be intended for, if it's not just an homage to the Queens legend.

One Time For Your Mind (Various)

Finally, we have a repeated phrase throughout Illmatic that is the title of one of its songs, and also appears on the outro of "Represent." "One time for your mind" comes from Grand Wizard, who provides the aloof hook on the first example before Nas gets into the chill cut. This is such a versatile phrase that can be used as an ad-lib, a filler bar, a historical reference, as part of a complex rhyme scheme, or as a reminder to keep the mental focus up and live for the singular moment. It appears in pop hits like "Pon De Replay" by Rihanna, lyrical onslaughts like Lil Wayne's "Dreams & Nightmares," Lupe Fiasco's "Paris, Tokyo," Ab-Soul's "Double Standards," Das EFX's "Real Hip-Hop," The Roots' "No Alibi," and so many more. Despite the variety of uses for this bar and many others, every hip-hop head knows its origins well.

About The Author
Gabriel Bras Nevares is a music and pop culture news writer for HotNewHipHop. He started in 2022 as a weekend writer and, since joining the team full-time, has developed a strong knowledge in hip-hop news and releases. Whether it’s regular coverage or occasional interviews and album reviews, he continues to search for the most relevant news for his audience and find the best new releases in the genre. What excites him the most is finding pop culture stories of interest, as well as a deeper passion for the art form of hip-hop and its contemporary output. Specifically, Gabriel enjoys the fringes of rap music: the experimental, boundary-pushing, and raw alternatives to the mainstream sound. As a proud native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, he also stays up-to-date with the archipelago’s local scene and its biggest musical exponents in reggaetón, salsa, indie, and beyond. Before working at HotNewHipHop, Gabriel produced multiple short documentaries, artist interviews, venue spotlights, and audio podcasts on a variety of genres and musical figures. Hardcore punk and Go-go music defined much of his coverage during his time at the George Washington University in D.C. His favorite hip-hop artists working today are Tyler, The Creator, Boldy James, JPEGMAFIA, and Earl Sweatshirt.