Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”
Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*
What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:
[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.
Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)
The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”
Such splitting allows for a change in delivery (the second verse is more fluid, especially when Nas opens up about his lyricism, in the lines above and when he compares himself to a “smooth criminal”).
This doubling is particularly interesting, and found elsewhere in hip-hop lyricism. Other genres use personae and multiple perspectives, but in hip-hop there’s often a meta aspect linked to the MC drawing attention to the act of writing itself. Nas puts forward a persona commenting on others at the start, to return to this writing of the character at the end: “I lay puzzles as I backtrack to earlier times/Nothing’s equivalent to a New York state of mind.”
References to writing exist in other genres: writing letters to former lovers, or receiving letters, for example, but hip-hop adds another dimension. Writing itself is a core theme, linked to ideas of reputation/status (killing off the competition etc) and survival. I write therefore I am.
None of this is abstract, at least not with my preferred MCs who allow for depth to come through not only on an intellectual level - via references, as Nas does here name-checking “Scarface” the film character, the rapper maybe - and making space for an emotional charge. You sense it here, Nas’s lyricism is not an exercise, a chance to show off, it’s an extension of his self and how he feels. Key to this is the intimate nature of hip-hop; the fact that rap is a spoken art, all the while playing with notions of authenticity and truth.
I understand the emphasis on analysing the line-by-line brilliance that consumes so many fans and critics alike. It makes sense, as a measure of the MC’s skill, as a way of consolidating community bonds. See here the Genius breakdown of “N.Y. State of Mind”, and impressive commentary on the following lines:
Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep—'cause sleep is the cousin of death
Here’s the take of one commentator:
“A truly classic rap line evoking ghetto drug dealers' “one eye open” sense of paranoia; perhaps inspired by the Talmud (which tells us sleep is 1/60th of death) or the Iliad (where Hypnos and Thanatos – i.e., “sleep” and “death” – are described as brothers)
This line’s 1st degree meaning is evident: sleep is a deathlike, inert state of consciousness
At the 2nd degree, “sleeping” is slang for being inattentive or negligent; a drug dealer who is robbed for lack of vigilance is said to be “caught sleeping”
Nas never “sleeps” – i.e., he’s never “caught sleeping” – because being an easy target could lead him to getting shot to death.
And, to top it all off, what’s New York City’s nickname?”
And another: “Sleep is the cousin of death” is also a Congolese proverb. While yet one more writer notes the parallel with one of the most famous speeches from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
(Nas, in an accompanying video for the Genius transcription says that the lines come from before he was born, from Africa).
The New York nature of the track is not confined to the rhymes; it’s reflected in the title, of course, taken from a Billy Joel song from 1977, here covered by Barbra Streisand:
And music, most famously in the “false start” that opens the track. In this video DJ Premier describes the recording process – “20 people” in the booth alongside Nas, asking him to pass the Henny and weed, and explains how the famous “false” start came about …
This awkward opening reflects Nas’s youth/shyness (DJ Premier refers to the way Nas used to hide his face when recording a verse). It also enacts a key aspect of his craft as MC, the way he draws attention to his rhymes as process, as if he is bringing his verses into being as he raps them. Countless MCs boast about their greatness, Nas does this too here, but what is distinctive is the way he allows for what seems to be a spontaneous element, as if he’s making it up then and there – just like a freestyle. I’ve written about this before. It’s something distinctive about his rhymes, the way they have an energy to them, a liveliness.
And yet, as DJ Premier explains this wasn’t made up, it was the real thing, Nas was freestyling and responding to a friend. Then recorded the verse in one take. That said, listening to it now it seems to convey a (fake) modesty. He raps: “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo …” to kick into one of the most extraordinary verses ever recorded, after the steadying “now …”
All this reflects something else that’s very New York, the freestyle culture kept alive via radio shows. (It’s more than likely the same culture existed elsewhere at the same time, but is less known to me). See the messy to-and-fro set-up, where the MCs banter along with the host, name-checking people who have supported them past and present, such as this very long intro on a 1993 Nas freestyle on the Stretch & Bobbito show, pre-Illmatic:
Keeping it loose like this does two things: it reinforces the fact that rap/hip-hop is part of an oral tradition, of people shooting the breeze playing with language in an improvised way, while also being a crucial part of the performance, allowing the audience to be wowed by the genius of the rhymes that come after it. It’s as if the MC is so cool, so good that they don’t need the formality of a worked-out introduction, it comes so easily to them – their speaking poetry of this quality and magnitude, it’s as natural for them as breathing.
It also enacts a consciousness where hip-hop draws on Black American musical/cultural traditions, where improvisation is a key element, if not the most essential element – the sign that a musician is blessed, as heard in jazz and other forms of spoken-word performance from the 60s and 70s.
The DJ Premier beat also has a disassembling aspect, in contrast to the other more melodic beats on Illmatic (see Pete Rock’s emphasis on certain words in “The World is Yours”, something that is quintessentially Motown, or the formal song-based structure of the Large Professor instrumentals).
“N.Y. State of Mind” starts on a single drum sound, which Nas then repeats in the “yeah,” but what makes this very New York is the high-pitched single note repeated like a bell (cf: Easy Mo Bee). This interest in emphasis individual notes (rather than melodies) is one reason why hip-hop music-making is so radical (though this too could be part of the jazz inheritance).
The piano comes in, again as a single note to supplement; on second hearing, it sounds like two piano lines, or the three-note keyboard line and piano. The skill of Nas’s rhymes is the way he maintains the energy; you could listen to his rhymes on that basis alone, the rhythm of them, slowing becoming more groove-like at two points, as previously mentioned. His control is impressive.
The three-note melody and perhaps more comes from Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain” from his 1978 Double Exposure album:
(Other samples mentioned on the Genius site are “Live at the Barbeque” Main Source; “Mahogany” Eric B & Rakim; “N.T.” Kool & The Gang and “Flight Time” Donald Byrd).
Interestingly the original Joe Chambers piece has a similar mood the the instrumental, of music being in formation, in development; it has a reflective, unformed quality to it, albeit grounded by the low notes (the beginning of both pieces of music especially remind me of the other).
Here’s the full album, Double Exposure, which was recorded in 1977 in New York; with Chambers on “p, e-p, dr, perc” and Larry Young on “og, syn.” As one of the commenters says, enthusiastically: “One of the very few duo albums in jazz using mainly the piano / organ format!! Probably the only one. Hats off to drummer Joe Chambers who shows his skills on the piano here. Joining with space brother Larry, this tops everything. A deep spiritual gem from the great Muse label!!!”
Have a look at this video where DJ Premier speaks more about the Joe Chambers sample and how he used it:
To close, a live performance of “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas in formal attire/sunglasses at the Kennedy Center, backed by an orchestra and DJ from 2018 (with Korean subtitles):
*(From above: T: “Weak answer” .. HHL: “Elaborate then. Not one line in this song is specific to the 1990s/T: “Still a very weak answer. You talk to me about something you engineered out of bizarre ideas, I talk to you about THE MUSIC.
HHL: Lmao I'm basing my argument off of the lyrics, it's not just my opinion. Nas was born in 1973, so he's writing a lot about his early experiences of life in Queensbridge. Crime in New York (a primary focus of the song) didn't start in the 90s, it was something that he grew up with (hence "the dungeons of rap"). Violent crime in NYC began to skyrocket in the 70s during white flight and continued into the 80s during the crack epidemic. He makes references to Scarface (1983), The Message by Grandmaster Flash (1982), Al Capone (early-mid 1900s), etc. Even the sampled beat in the song is a jazz record from 1977.
T replies: “Blah blah blah blah ...... no.”) For those who’d prefer a “90s-era fan mash-up video,” go here.