Song 200: Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994)

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A high-pitched, pulsating signal, followed by a young man saying, “Yeah, yeah.” Then a couple of rapped lines, an abrupt pause, then that same young man saying, “I don’t know how to start this shit.”

That’s how Illmatic begins, and it’s quite possibly the biggest fakeout in all of hip-hop. Not only does Nas know how to start that shit, he does it amazingly well, because a few beats later, he launches into a verse that weaves, hurdles, ducks, leaps around and over the track’s beat. It’s the first track (after the brief intro “Genesis”) of what many consider to be the best hip-hop album ever.

“N.Y. State of Mind” isn’t technically the first time the world heard from Nas—that would be the 1992 single “Halftime,” which was also featured on Illmatic a year later—but it’s a hell of a way to start a debut record. Nas was immediately compared to Rakim, and I can see why: all those internal rhymes, for one, and the focus on lyrics that tell a story.

I love Illmatic, but I don’t know much about it, so I’ve been looking at its Wikipedia page. It’s one of the longest Wikipedia pages I’ve ever seen, and it’s endlessly fascinating. This quote from co-producer DJ Premier describes what it was like to witness Nas record “N.Y. State of Mind”:

I’m counting him in. One, two, three. And then you can hear him go, “Yo,” and then he goes right into it … He didn’t know how he was gonna come in, but he just started going because we were recording. I’m actually yelling, “We’re recording!” and banging on the [vocal booth] window. “Come on, get ready!” You hear him start the shit: “Rappers….” And then everyone in the studio was like, “Oh, my God”, ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that was when he was up and coming, his first album. So we was like, “Yo, this guy is gonna be big.”

I love that story, because there’s an underdog aspect to it. He was not ready. And then he was very much ready. And then everything changed.

It’s interesting to consider this song’s title, because it references Billy Joel’s romanticized version of New York (sung by a rich white guy) and turns it into what New York is actually like for an untold number of its residents. Later, of course, came “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z (sorry, sorry—JAY Z) which romanticized Nas’s de-romanticized version of the city: I used to be in the projects, and now I’m sitting courtside with Spike Lee.

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