Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Weekend of Nas: Top 6 References to Writing on Illmatic

Yes, this is a movie blog. Having a blog is, by definition, self-indulgent. It is a place where one chooses to pontificate on whatever moves them. For me, I chose movies. In other words, it's MY movie blog. I do what the hell I want with it. Still, I treat it as the cinematic haven for my thoughts it was meant to be, never discussing anything that I can't fit into a movie related conversation. That is, until now. Sort of.

Yesterday, I reviewed the documentary Time is Illmatic. It chronicles the making of Illmatic by Nas which happens to be my favorite album of all-time. Many of hip-hop's most familiar tropes are present. At first listen, if you're not really paying close attention, it sounds like lots of other rap albums: some guy talking about his neighborhood over jazz-influenced and/or boom-bap infused beats. It's not until you really start to listen when you start picking up on recurring themes, complex rhyme schemes, explicit and implicit pop-culture references, and an overall cleverness to it all.

Today, I'm going to explore one of those recurring themes: the act of writing. Nas speaks of it often. Being a guy who also loves writing, this is something close to my heart. Here are

The Top 6 References to Writing on Illmatic

Oh okay, here's how we're going to relate it to movies. Use the pictures below as a quiz and see if you can guess what films they come from...the ones that don't come from Scarface, that is. Let's get on with it.

#6 y’all? It’s Nasty, the villain
I’m still writing rhymes, but besides that I’m chillin’

(One Time 4 Your Mind)
On an album filled with woozy, bluesy tracks and a relaxed feel to it,  One Time 4 Your Mind is still the most laid back song on Illmatic. Nothing too deep is going on. Nas is just talking about what he does on a regular day when he’s hanging around the block. He talks about watching movies, listening to mixtapes, making sure he has condoms “just in case.” Y’know, normal stuff young dudes do. With Nas, part of his normal daily routine is taking some time out to pen a verse or two. It’s a simple little couplet, but conveys lots of love for his craft.

It’s only right that I was born to use mics
And the stuff that I write is even tougher than dykes

(N.Y. State of Mind)
Lol. The kid definitely wasn’t lacking in confidence. He knows that rap is his true calling. He also wants you to understand this. Is this an insensitive and ignorant remark stereotyping a whole group of people? Yes. Does it still make me crack a smile when I hear it? Yes.

So I be ghost from my projects, I take my pen and pad
For the weekend hittin L's while I'm sleeping
A two day stay, you may say I needed time alone
To relax my dome, no phone, left the nine at home

(One Love)

Sometimes, being at home is just too chaotic to get any damn writing done. When that's the case, and you don't have anything (or anyone) tying you down to that spot, you just gotta get away. Where? Who the hell knows? Who cares? As long as it's away from here and peaceful.

Heini Dark drinker, represent the thinker
My pen rides the paper, it even has blinkers
Think I'll dim the lights then inhale, it stimulates
Floating like I'm on the North 95 Interstate
Never plan to stop, when I write my hand is hot

(One Time 4 Your Mind)
Lots of writers, have to set the mood for them to create. Often, this includes the controlled substance(s) of their choice. For Nas, we already know that means weed and alcohol (Heineken Dark, in this case). But he brilliantly takes it a step further. He equates his pen traveling across the page to a car on I-95 and doubles up on the metaphor because his brain is also rolling down that highway once he takes a puff.

Rappers, I monkey flip 'em with the funky rhythm I be kickin'
Musician, inflictin' compositions of pain
I'm like Scarface sniffin' cocaine
Holding an M-16,
see with the pen I'm extreme

(N.Y. State of Mind)
Here, we have the lines that open the album. Immediately, our host on this tour through Queensbridge lets us know that when it comes to writing, there are none better. He does so by invoking the tired cliche of a rapper comparing himself to Al Pacino's Tony Montana and flipping it on its ear. If you've seen Scarface, you remember the climactic scene, y'know, "Say hello to my li'l frien'!" Nas tells us that he's in that kind of mode when he writes, feeling invincible. But he also instinctively knows this is an over the top description inspired by an over the top movie. So, if he is truly as good as he is telling us he is, then he is certainly extreme with the pen.

I sip the Dom P, watching Gandhi til I'm charged
Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin
To hold the mic I'm throbbin', mechanical movement
Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with
The thief's theme - play me at night, they won't act right
The fiend of hip-hop has got me stuck like a crack pipe
The mind activation, react like I'm facing
Time like Pappy Mason, with pens I'm embracing
Wipe the sweat off my dome, spit the phlegm on the streets
Suede Timbs on my feet makes my cipher complete
Whether cruising in a Six cab or Montero Jeep
I can't call it; the beats make me falling asleep
I keep falling, but never falling six feet deep
I'm out for presidents to represent me (say what?)
I'm out for presidents to represent me (say what?)
I'm out for dead presidents to represent me

(The World is Yours)
We give the top spot on the list to the entire first verse of another Scarface influenced song, The World is Yours. He starts the verse by getting inspired to write, by watching Gandhi, in this case. When he does, he's going kinda crazy with it, not really caring what it looks like. Indeed, words are running past the margins. He then echoes Rakim's famous verse from Eric B. for President when he describes the hold hip hop has on him ("to hold the mic I'm throbbin'), even going so far as to call himself a "fiend" for the mic because he's addicted to it. Of course, he's not going to grab it without writing something serious, first. To get that done, he's embracing the pen. At the end of the day, he also understands this skill is his meal-ticket. He's using it in his quest for prosperity. Of course, he should. If you can make your passion pay you big bucks (dead presidents), wouldn't you?

Hmmm...This was fun, for me at least. We're going a step further tomorrow. We're taking on The Man Upstairs.

By the way, the movies these pictures come from are as follows:
6. Scarface
5. Monster
4. Into the Wild
3. Thelma & Louise
2. Scarface
1. Scarface


  1. I know those films by frame. Nas' lyrics though is something I have no idea about. It's cool that you're doing it. Especially as someone who is considered one of the best and certainly someone in his own stature that isn't worried about how much money he's making and such.

    1. Thanks for indulging my flight of fancy. I won't completely absolve Nas of falling into some of the same traps as other rappers. He has, on occasion, bragged about money & women, too. Luckily, it's not a frequent thing since he also has lots more on his mind than that.