My favorite track changes almost every time I listen to Illmatic. Some days it’s the rah-rah “Represent.” Some days it’s “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” But “N.Y. State of Mind” is a crazy piece of work, especially when you imagine Nas going into DJ Premier’s booth and knocking it out on the first try. One Take Esco.
Even unrehearsed, these stories of crime and paranoia are so vivid. My writer Andy Bustard was a baby in Manchester, UK when Illmatic first dropped but he says discovering “N.Y. State of Mind” as a teen was like immersion learning. “Nas captured the ruthless, life-or-death nature of the projects...and teleported me into the heart of Queensbridge Houses,” he says. The same thing was true for me as a Korean-American teen from Chicago hearing it for the first time.
I also love that on “N.Y.” and really throughout Illmatic, Nas constantly salutes the music that raised him. Nowadays, artists practically rap through their address books, listing all their famous friends. Nas cited his heroes, not contemporaries, Mr. Magic, MC Shan, Fat Cat and Alpo. And on “N.Y. State of Mind” it feels like he accepts the mantle as Rakim’s “godson.” It’s there in the hook, and in the sample from Rakim’s “Mahogany."