Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Weekend of Nas: Top 10 Religious References on Illmatic

If you came around here yesterday, you know that we took a break from our normal movie conversation to discuss music. In particular, we detailed and expanded on The Top 6 References to Writing on Nas' debut album, Illmatic.  We're going to continue along that path today and do some more lyrical analysis of that album. This time, the stakes are a bit higher since we're taking on The Man Upstairs. On a Sunday. Boom.

When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus.

Those are the words that got the most attention from Nas' verse on the Main Source song Live at the Barbeque. It reeks of a youngster trying to break into the rap game by saying the most outlandish thing he can think of for shock value. I won't tell you it wasn't that, but...there's more to it. A couple years later, Nas would release his now classic debut album, Illmatic. You might have heard, the 20th anniversary of this event was a few days ago. Of course, there's already been much ink spilled and many keys hit praising, chronicling, and breaking down the album so I'll forgive you if you're all Illmatic'd out and wish not to continue. However,...I'm going to approach it from a different angle than I've seen elsewhere. One of the themes of the album that hasn't really been explored is the artist working through his own spirituality even though he seems to have a disdain for religion. In other words, the quote at the top was only the tip of the iceberg. Here, we're going to explore the LP's religious references. And since this is a list I will rank them. And just to keep this movie-related, like yesterday, we're going to use pics from movies. See if you can identify them all. No, there are no pictures from Scarface today.



I drink Moet with Medusa, give her shotguns - inhale
from the spliff that I lifted in hell.

It Ain’t Hard to Tell 10:3

As far as religious references go, this one is rather innocuous. What it does though, is continue to showcase the influence Christianity has had on his life whether he accepts or rejects it. That influence manifests itself most often as an explicit fascination with heaven and, in particular, hell. Lyrically, it cleverly combines Greek mythology with a more traditional religious setting to create an interesting visual. And of course, it goes shallow by name dropping the ghetto-fabulous drink of the day and speaking about his other drug of choice.


When it’s my time to go
I’ll wait for God with the ‘fo-’fo! (.44)

Halftime 5:3

The song this quote is from actually pre-dates the album by a couple years and showed up on the Zoolander soundtrack. That makes Nas about 18 when he penned it. If 18 year old males are anything, they’re brash, arrogant, and defiant. This little piece of shameless blasphemy is all of those things rolled into one. Kids think they’re invincible. Obviously, Nas was no exception. And when you’re invincible, you’ll take on anyone, even if that means having it out with God Himself.


Cold be walkin’ with a bop and my hat turned back
Love committing sins and my friends sell crack

Represent 9:2

Did I mention that Nas had a defiant streak in him? Once again, it’s on display. The interesting choice is the use of the phrase ‘Love committing sins.’ It suggests that he certainly has some concept of right and wrong, yet is going to do certain things anyway. It’s also interesting that ‘his friends sell crack,’ but not him. Even to his own hedonism, there are apparently limits. In fact, throughout the album, made during the era when it became popular for the artists to claim they were a drug kingpin before getting a record deal, Nas only once claims to have sold drugs at all and it was hardly in a glamorizing fashion. He references several others selling. When speaking of himself selling, it’s nearly always either a fantasy or a possibility of what his future may hold.

My brain is incarcerated
live at any jam, I couldn't count all the parks I raided
I hold a Mac-11, and attack a reverend
I contact 11 L's and max in Heaven

One Time 4 Your Mind 8:2

Judging by the final couplet, this one is very similar to #8 on this list. It's a youngster trying to show just how much of bad-ass he is. Adding in the two lines that precede it, adds a bit more. Feeling incarcerated is a feeling many young black men have even when they're not actually in prison. Going further into that is a subject for another day. Just know that Nas reflects that here. One way of "breaking out" would be to hold a mac-11, attack a reverend, yet still be able to smoke some weed while relaxing in heaven. Ignorant? Maybe. Probably. But it expresses feelings many have.

killer coppers even come through in helicopters
I drink a little vodka, spark a L & hold a glock for
The fronters, wannabe ill-n****s & spot-runners
Thinking it can't happen 'till I trap 'em and clap 'em
& leave 'em done
Won't even run about Gods
I don't believe in none of that shit
Your facts are backwards

Represent 9:1

To me, Represent is easily the song on Illmatic most classifiable as gangsta-rap. Even this little bit showcases that. A number of the album's songs has the artists commenting on, even fantasizing about violent behavior. This includes N.Y. State of Mind which I know leaps to the mind of some people reading this. Here, we get the one song that specifically paints Queensbridge as a place you really need to stay away from if you're not from there. Even here, however, Nas can't help himself. He has to say something with religious connotations. What makes this different from the rest on the album is that it's the only time when he takes a swipe at the people who are undeniably on his level for their beliefs. Before going on, I should say that this is the one quote I could be most wrong about, but I'm rolling with my interpretation anyway. The Gods, he's referencing aren't some mythological beings. He's talking about members of the Five Percent Nation of Islam. This is a subset of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. Technically, Muhammad had nothing to do with its formation, but many of the doctrines are the same. Without going through the whole religion, it's male members refer to themselves as Gods. They can often be heard trying to recruit others into their beliefs. Not all, but a number of them still live "that street life" leaving some to refer to it as more of a gang than a religion. Regardless, Nas seems tired of hearing what they have to say and lets them know what you claim as fact, is not.

I'm trying to get this money, God, you know the hard times, kid
Shit, cold be starving make you wanna do crimes kid
But I'mma lamp, cause a crime couldn't beat a rhyme
N****s catching 3 to 9's, Muslims yelling "Free the mind"

One Time 4 Your Mind 8:2

While Nas takes Five Percenters to task in Represent, he acknowledges the positive influence Muslims have on his community in One Time 4 Your Mind. He acknowledges how tough it is live a straight life when circumstances might dictate you do otherwise. He also realizes his talent on the mic provides him with a way out. Seeing many of his friends go to prison proves to be another deterrent. Finally, those trying to do the right thing get a small assist from street-corner Muslims. He may not agree with their beliefs, but recognizes that they aren't all bad.

Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist due to "facts"
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed (uh)

One Love 7:3

Many have wondered just how much truth there is in the things we've been taught all our lives. This includes Nas. Let's face it, what's in school text books changes over time as new information is discovered and/or old information is disproved. The authenticity of The Holy Bible has been called into question time and again. The same goes for other sacred texts. Nas is simply trying to make sense of it all. Too many things in life don't make sense if what he's learned is true. Through his contemplation, medicinally aided of course, he just decides on rejecting it all.

I woke up early on my born day; I'm 20, it's a blessing
The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I'm fresh and
My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it
One quarter through life some Godly-like thing created

Life's a Bitch 3:2

Here, Nas celebrates a birthday. The festive occasion seems to bring him out of his usual defiant mood and has him adopting a more grateful tone. He should. Too many people he knew personally, and young men of color across the nation don't reach the ripe old age of 20. Even so, he realizes there is far more life to live and he's only made it "one quarter through." Even though the album itself is now 20, the sentiment hasn't lost any poignancy.

There's no days for broke days when $ellin' $moke pay$
While all the old folks pray to Jesús, soakin' their sins in trays (treys)
Of holy water, odds against Nas are slaughter
Thinking a word best describing my life to name my daughter
My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection
Born in correction, all the wrong shit I did, he'll lead in right directions

The World is Yours 4:2

There is just a ridiculous amount of stuff going on here. For starters, Nas reiterates a popular 'hood sentiment: instead of going broke, you do what you have to do. The elders in his life, and the neighborhood, may have been there before. Even if they haven't been exactly in the place he speaks of, he knows they're not perfect. This is why they pray. Prayer is simply "soakin' their sins in trays of holy water." Now, let's even dig a bit deeper on that line. Trays has a double purpose. You can substitute the homophone treys, as in three, as in trinity. Looking forward (he had no children at the time), he's searching for a way out and thinks it will be something he can do once he settles down and has a family. Then it will be time to set a good example for them. Whatever he will name his future daughter it will be something that symbolizes what she does to him: the strength to set that example. However, it's his future son that will hold the real power. The boy will be his father's resurrection. Going forward, as an incarnation of his dad, he will right all the wrongs and lead Nas himself in the right direction. Hmmm...seems to sound an awful lot like that guy to whom the old folks pray.

My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails
I reinforce the frail, with lyrics that's real
Word to Christ, a disciple of streets, trifle on beats
I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace

Memory Lane 6:2

Here, Nas again spouts his disdain for religion and even religious symbolism. He then empowers his own words by letting us know they "reinforce the frail." To further expand on his point, he employs more religious ideas to let you know he's not "just" rhyming, he's got something deeper on his mind. For me, it's that application of those ideas to himself and even the blasphemous equation of himself to Christ that comes with it that makes this the most daring religious reference on Illmatic.

Thank you for indulging me once again. Tomorrow, we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Oh yeah, the pictures are from...

10. Clash of the Titans (1980)
9. Dirty Harry
8. Poetic Justice
7. Calvary
6. Blue Thunder
5. Malcolm X
4. Belly (that's actually Nas facing away from the camera)
3. Happy Birthday to Me
2. Red Hook Summer
1. The Passion of the Christ


  1. I never thought about Nas' music this way. Bless (ha!) this post, it's excellent. Nas is easily one of the greatest rappers of all time, IMO anyways.

    1. Thanks for checking it out. And yes, he's easily one of the greatest.

  2. This is great stuff man. It shows how complex Nas is and why he's so important.

    1. Far more complex than the average rapper. Thanks!

  3. @Wendell Ottley: I haven’t listened to the debut album of Nas. I actually do recognize the album artwork. I’m open to hip hop, just I rarely find something I love. "Fuck a school lecture", yes, it's important to be critical of what we are told. We need to think for ourselves and not just passively receive information.

    1. Aside from it being my personal favorite, it is an important listen for historical purposes since it has crossed over and been recognized by mainstream publications as one of the great albums. I hope you at least give it a go.

    2. @Wendell Ottley: Just borrowed the album from the library yesterday!

    3. Nice!!! Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    4. Nice!!! Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    5. Nice!!! Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

  4. Wow.... just.. Wow. AMAZING post Dell. You know I'm a fellow East Coast hip hop fan, and it was a pleasure to read this post. Great stuff. I've now got Illmatic blaring!! :D:D

    1. Thank you for such kind words. Always glad someone is listening to Illmatic.