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Nas’ 20 Best Lines On ‘Illmatic’

  • nas-illmatic
    Has it really been 20 years since Illmatic first dropped? It’s a testament to how consistently prolific Nas has been over the past two decades that the man is just as relevant today as he was back in 1994. One of the genre-defining records for hip-hop as a whole, Illmatic proves that a rapper can be intelligent and socially conscious while simultaneously celebrating the lifestyle of a street disciple. In honor of the 20th anniversary, XXL has compiled a list of Nas’ 20 best lines from his groundbreaking debut album. Time flies, stay civilized. Michael Carlos
    nas illmatic lyric list
  • nas_etsummer9422

    “NY State Of Mind”

    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “Straight out the fuckin' dungeons of rap/Where fake niggas don’t make it back/I don’t know how to start this shit, yo”
    Why It’s Dope: I would be completely remiss to compile a list of the best lyrics from Illmatic without including this gem from the intro to the first full track on the album. You don’t know how to start this shit, Nas? Yes, you do, because you just did and you killed it.

    nas ny state of mind lyric
  • nas_illmatic_pic

    “NY State Of Mind”

    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “It drops deep as it does in my breath/I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death/Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined/I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”
    Why It’s Dope: One of the most famous lines in hip-hop history, Nas mirrors the city that never sleeps by explaining that crime is everywhere in this city and if you ever slow down, you die. This line also has the contrast of Nas’ vision of New York as a place defined by crime while so many others view it as the city of opportunity.

    nas illmatic ny state of mind
  • nas_ny_state_of_mind_2358151

    “NY State Of Mind”

    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain”
    Why It’s Dope: Nas feels like he’s going crazy because he’s constantly coming up with lyrics to the point of being overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the man is persistent despite all of the difficulties of life in the projects because rapping is the only way that he knows how to process all of the craziness around him.

    nas illmatic dj premier
  • nas-1

    “Life’s A Bitch” feat. AZ

    Producer: L.E.S. and Nas
    Lyric: “When I was young at this, I used to do my thing hard/Robbin' foreigners, take their wallets, their jewels, and rip their green cards/Dipped to the projects flashing my quick cash and/Got my first piece of ass smoking blunts with hash”
    Why It’s Dope: This line recounts Nas’ days as a petty thief when he didn’t have a care in the world except getting a little money, getting a little high, and getting a little laid. Who can’t relate to the halcyon days of youth when you felt invincible and feared no consequences? This is juxtaposed perfectly with the determinism of the AZ’s hook that “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

    nas lyric list illmatic az
  • nas-2

    “Life’s A Bitch” feat. AZ

    Producer: L.E.S. and Nas
    Lyric: “Time is illmatic, keep static like wool fabric/Pack a 4-matic to crack your whole cabbage”
    Why It’s Dope: The final two lines of this song embody a theme that re-emerges throughout Illmatic, that death is all around you so you shouldn’t waste a minute of your time on Earth, while acknowledging that time is always moving forward and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut in your life. Heavy shit.

    nas 20 years illmatic
  • Nas-04

    “The World Is Yours”

    Producer: Pete Rock
    Lyric: “While all the old folks pray to Jesus, soakin’ their sins in trays/Of holy water, odds against Nas are slaughter/Thinkin' 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 a right direction”
    Why It’s Dope: These lines endorse a vision of the world in which Nas plays the roles of both God and sinner, only capable of being saved by the goodness of his children. This line used to sound like wishful thinking on the part of Nas and his guilty conscience, but as you get older, the concept of becoming a better person through your children, or them being your resurrection, begins to resonate.

    nas the world is yours illmatic
  • nas-i-am

    “The World Is Yours”

    Producer: Pete Rock
    Lyric: “Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne”
    Why It’s Dope: Such a simple idea and such a sad way to experience life, this line encapsulates a painful existential truth. In contrast with Nas’ feelings earlier in the song that he would be resurrected by his son, he still has his doubts that he can be anything but alone in this world of his.

    nas pete rock illmatic 20
  • nas-illmatic-20-anniversary-reissue2


    Producer: Large Professor
    Lyric: ”You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer/That’s like Malcolm X catching the Jungle Fever”
    Why It’s Dope: I just love the way these two lines wrap around each other. The best rhymes are always ones like this that just get stuck in your head. The mirrored absurdity of Nas walking around without any weed on him and Malcolm X dating a white woman is also a clever little analogy.

    nas halftime illmatic
  • nas_1


    Producer: Large Professor
    Lyric: “Back in ‘83 I was an MC sparkin’/But I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and/Kick my little raps 'cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand/And now in every jam I’m the fuckin’ man”
    Why It’s Dope: If you ever walk or drive past the Queensbridge housing projects where Nas grew up in the summer, you’d notice the barbecues in the parks beneath the Queensboro Bridge and impromptu rap battles. Just imagine 10-year-old Nas in 1983 listening to the older kids spit rhymes and being too afraid to jump on the mic himself but harboring those hip-hop dreams. Then fast forward a decade to Nas being hailed as the best rapper to ever come out of Queens. Badass.

    nas large professor illmatic
  • nas-illmatic-photo

    “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”

    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “I rap for listeners, bluntheads, fly ladies and prisoners/Henessey-holders and old-school niggas, then I be dissing”
    Why It’s Dope: It’s interesting to see how narrow of an audience Nas believed his raps would have, especially in retrospect. Twenty years later this album is universally beloved, even by people who don’t otherwise listen to much rap music. Kind of like how people tell you Les Miserables is a musical for people who don’t like musicals, Illmatic is a rap album for people who don’t like rap albums. Did I really just compare Nas with a musical? Let’s just move on.

    nas memory lane illmatic
  • Nas-Illmaticera1

    “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”

    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat/Childhood lesson make me see him drop in my weed smoke/It’s real, grew up in trife life, the times of white lines/The hype pipes, murderous nighttimes and knife fights invite crimes”
    Why It’s Dope: We can see here how hard lessons learned at too young of an age shaped Nas’ worldview. Every time he gets high, he remembers the night he lost one of his friends to the violence that overtook major American cities in the 1980s.

    nas illmatic 20 years memory lane
  • nas-nahright

    “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”

    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “Pumping for something, some’ll prosper, some fail/Judges hanging niggas, uncorrect bails for direct sales/My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails”
    Why It’s Dope: This line is a critique of a penal system that is rigged against African-Americans and hands down unfair jail sentences for drug-related crimes (a problem that many rappers still touch upon even twenty years later). But Nas is defiant in proclaiming that he is too smart to fall victim to the same fate that have befallen so many others.

    nas 20 years illmatic memory lane park
  • nas-stillmatic

    “One Love”

    Producer: Q-Tip
    Lyric: “Plus congratulations, you know you got a son/I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?”
    Why It’s Dope: Nas is—almost—taunting his friend in prison by telling him that his girl gave birth to his son since he’s been locked up but has also moved on from him. This line bounces from Nas’ lips and sounds so happy even though it describes what sounds like a nightmare of a situation. Can you imagine being imprisoned and knowing that you have a son that you’ll never get to meet because his mother doesn’t care about you anymore? Ouch.

    nas one love q-tip
  • nas_fire_3

    “One Love”

    Producer: Q-Tip
    Lyric: “But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?/Jerome’s niece/On her way home from Jones Beach”
    Why It’s Dope: The realities of walking down the street in the hood come vividly clear as Nas details the fates of the neighborhood kids to his locked up homie. Even someone as seemingly innocent as the girl described in the track can get popped for nothing more sinister than coming home from a day at the beach. It's stark, but the flow is great.

    nas one love illmatic
  • nas1 (1)

    “One Love”

    Producer: Q-Tip
    Lyric: “So stay civilized, time flies/Though incarcerated your mind dies, I hate it when your moms cries/It kinda makes me want to murder, for real a/I even got a mask and gloves to bust slugs but one love”
    Why It’s Dope: Nas is encouraging his friend to stay positive and not let his incarceration break his spirit. This line is notable because it’s one of the few times on the album when murder is referenced with the motive being anything other than money or self-preservation—it's revenge, and it's an emotion that's hard to overcome.

    nas illmatic 20 years anniversary one love
  • nas1

    “One Time 4 Your Mind”

    Producer: Large Professor
    Lyric: “When I was ten I was a hip-hoppin’ shorty wop/Known for rocking microphones and twisting off a 40 top”
    Why It’s Dope: I wish I was that much of a baller when I was ten, but I think we’ve also come across a bit of a continuity error in Nas’s mythmaking. In “Halftime,” Nas says that he was too afraid to rock a mic when he was ten, but here he’s claiming he was known for that and twistin off 40s. I’m sure baby Nas was a little badass, but maybe not quite as much as he’d have you believe.

    nas one time 4 your mind illmatic
  • NAS8

    “One Time 4 Your Mind”

    Producer: Large Professor
    Lyric: “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”
    Why It’s Dope: With these lines, we get a little peek inside the creative process for Nas. He uses weed to clear his mind and get the juices flowing and talks about how once he starts, he never wants to stop. It also represents two different ways he floats over the beat, either using the drums to kick off his next line or landing it neatly into the next rhyme.

    nas large professor one time 4 your mind
  • NAS17


    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “Nas is a rebel of the street corner/Pulling a Tec out the dresser/Police got me under pressure”
    Why It’s Dope: Nas is explaining the overwhelming sense of fear and paranoia when you’re in the drug game and how that fear can drive you to arming yourself with semi-automatic weapons. He’s proud of his status as a rebel but is also condemning the gangsta lifestyle as not being worth it.

    nas represent suit
  • NASMain


    Producer: DJ Premier
    Lyric: “The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator/The type of nigga who be pissin' in your elevator/Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game/Used to sport Bally's and Gazelle's with black frames/Now I'm into fat chains, sex and tecs/Fly new chicks and new kicks, Heine's and Beck's”
    Why It’s Dope: It's a perfect reference to the type of degenerate who pisses in elevators; everybody knows who that type of person is, and a simple line encapsulates the entire idea. Then there's the rap game/crack game comparison, which is one of the most commonly-used tropes in the genre.

    nas illmatic 20 years represent
  • the_set_up_nas

    "It Ain’t Hard To Tell"

    Producer: Large Professor
    Lyric: “Street’s disciple, I rock beats that’s mega trifle/And groove even smoother than moves by Villanova/You’re still a soldier/I’m like Sly Stone in Cobra
    Why It’s Dope: This echoes Nas’s first lines ever recorded and sampled on “The Genesis” while also featuring a couplet in which Nas compares himself to the Villanova basketball team and Sylvester Stallone. A little more impressive in 1994 than it is in 2014, but you can't blame a pop culture reference.

    nas illmatic it ain't hard to tell

Previously: MC Serch Always Knew Nas’ Illmatic Was The Greatest Album Of All Time
Illmatic A&R Faith Newman On Nas’ Wild Early Days
Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic
Made You Look: The 20 Most Stylish Looks From Nas
Nas’ 15 Best Lines From I Am…

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