The Top 5 Verses on Illmatic

Twenty years ago today, Nas' Illmatic hit shelves at retail outlets around the country. It's really a soft anniversary--if you knew the right people or were particularly charming with retail workers, you might have had the album in some form for weeks. But Illmatic occupies a special place in the rap canon. Two decades later, it holds up as (at least) the plurality choice as the greatest hip-hop album ever made. To mark the occasion, our Paul Thompson broke down the album's five best verses.

5. “Life’s a Bitch”, Verse Two

Of all the show-stopping guest verses in rap history, AZ's turn on "Life's a Bitch" might be the most mystical. Allegedly the first time he had recorded in a professional setting, it was the sole cameo on Illmatic and singlehandedly landed AZ a deal with EMI. No discussion of Illmatic is complete without someone--often a person who would rank it as the best album ever crafted--insisting that the best verse on the record didn't even belong to Nas. Yet, while there's no question that the opening of "Life's A Bitch" is unforgettable, AZ may not even have the best verse on the song. The “wise beyond his years” cliché was always meant for Nasir Jones. What twenty-year-old reminisces on the fact that he is “one-quarter through life”? Nas looks back at his life to this point with clear-headed affection. Robbing foreigners (and ripping their green cards) sounds like something out of a Rockwell. “I switched my motto, instead of saying, “Fuck tomorrow”/That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.”

4. “NY State of Mind”, Verse One

The story has taken on the qualities of a legend: After the shot heard around the world that was “Live At the Barbecue”, anticipation for Nas’ debut album reached a fever pitch. Bootleggers schemed, radio stations plotted, and people cared about Zebrahead. The process of breaking Nas was slow and deliberate—“Barbecue” was released in the summer of 1991, almost three full years before Illmatic eventually dropped. Still, Columbia couldn’t keep everything under wraps. Unofficial versions of the album flooded the marketplace, forcing the label’s hand into releasing the album with only nine proper songs. But when those tapes finally popped into car stereos, Nasty Nas didn’t waste any time. The first verse on “NY State of Mind” was famously recorded straight through, on Nas’ first take in a studio with DJ Premier. It’s a complex tapestry of images from Queensbridge, and Nas weaves through it with thoughts of an assassin. Syllables roll off his tongue effortlessly, extending phrases to impossible lengths (half-lines like “Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes” are added in what would otherwise be dead space, making for wall-to-wall illness). He sounds menacing, wise, and innocent, all in the same breath. “Time to start the revolution/Catch a body, head to Houston.”

3. “One Love”, Verse One

Leave it to Q-Tip to conjure the spirits with a xylophone. The track for “One Love” is equal parts gritty and exposed, and uneasy look at the familiar. Framed as letters to his friends serving time, the song catches young Nas at his most conflicted. In the rambling, brilliant third verse, he shares a blunt with a twelve-year-old who’s vested up and sharing war stories. The second ends with a ridiculous qualifier: “I even got a mask and gloves to pump slugs/But one love”. But it’s that opening salvo that stands above the rest. This time, there is no philosophizing. There are no cups being passed to Gandhi or spiritual awakenings. This is about survival. The letter to his friend starts, “What up, kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid/When the cops came, you should have slid to my crib/Fuck it, black, no time for looking back, it’s done/Plus, congratulations—you know you got a son”. Of course, Nas does insist on rehashing the details, and it isn’t all good. The son’s mother won’t write him (“Flippin’, talkin’ ‘bout ‘he acts too rough/’he doesn’t listen, he be riffin’ while I’m tellin’ him stuff’”); young kids from their block are now hustling; Jerome’s niece was killed (on her way home from Jones Beach). It is not all good. At least Nas filled up that commissary account. “You was my nigga when push came to shove/One what? One love.”

2. “The World Is Yours”, Verse Three

If a poll were to be commissioned, “The World Is Yours” very well may be the plurality choice as the essential cut from Illmatic. Other tracks are more often quoted, more outwardly serious, even more intense. “World”’s appeal is different. This is not the Queensbridge of “One Love” or “Represent”; instead, Pete Rock lays the framework for a Sunday stroll through the projects. There are still threats—the “crazy bitches aiming guns at all my baby pictures” come to mind—but this is Nas at his happiest on Illmatic. There is none of “Life’s a Bitch”’s underlying existential dread, no chip-on-the-shoulder grudge like on “Halftime” or “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”. No, this is a present-tense moment of calm, a five-minute exhalation. The finest moment comes three minutes in: After the hook, then a long, scratched break, Nas comes back in like the prophet he had become. The titular nod to Tony Montana is a bit disingenuous; young Nas is far too cerebral to suffer the same fate. “I’m the young city bandit, hold my self down single-handed.”

1. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”, Verse Two

Twenty years later, we’re still playing catch-up. “Memory Lane”, our sleeper pick as the album’s (and Nas’) finest song, is an endless string of impossibly dense phrases, stitched together with blunt smoke and nostalgia. That Nas could be nostalgic at all for some of the things he recalls on this song is a wonder, and probably grounds for a study on urban decay in Reagan’s America. Regardless, as Biz Markie’s disembodied voice sends you on a trip down the proverbial memory lane, Nas is standing on the side of the road, remembering his friend, the one who was “shot for his sheep coat”. The second verse opens, “One for the money, two for pussy and foreign cars/Three for Alize, niggas deceased or behind bars”. This tension between the light Nas saw at the end of the tunnel and the world from which he came would define the first half of his career, but for four minutes in the middle of Illmatic, the outside world doesn’t encroach. The cynic’s take on Nas—the verbose, affectless wordsmith impervious to the world around him—is a modern construct, an image that can’t possibly exist in the minds of those who saw him at his effortless coolest. Who else could talk about his razor embracing “many faces”, then turn around and compare himself to Jesus during his crucifixion, and sound equally convincing on both points? And for all the careful work on the writing end (there is not a single stray syllable on “Memory Lane”; every turn of phrase hinges on the one before or after), toward the end of the verse, Nas breaks his cool. Exclaiming “Uptown was Alpo, son, heard he was kinpin, yo”, the recollection is Nas bursting with the pride of a kid who cracked the code, and survived. “True in the game as long as blood is blue in my veins/I pour my Heineken brew to my deceased crew, on memory lane.”

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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