Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Nas -- "N.Y. State of Mind" (1994)

I never sleep
'Cause sleep is the cousin of death

It's been quite a while since our last "Hip-Hop 101" lecture.  Did you think your professor was ill, had died, had gotten fired, or had run off with that hot French student who never wears a bra to class?

Never fear -- we're going to get through the class syllabus sooner or later.  (Cross my heart and hope to die!)

Nas (circa 1994)
New York City was the birthplace of rap music, but West Coast gangsta rappers like N.W.A., Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dogg came to dominate the rap scene by the early 1990s.  But then a new generation of New York City MCs -- including the Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas -- burst on to the scene.

Nas -- his real name is Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones -- was not quite 21 when his debut album, Illmatic, was released in 1994.  Some critics rank it as the best rap album of all time, and nearly all of them rank Nas very high on the list of the greatest MCs. 

Nas is a consummate storyteller who's not afraid to innovate and experiment.  (The narrators of Nas's songs include a fetus, a corpse, and a gun.)  His lyrics feature an extensive vocabulary and complex rhymes, but he never lets the fancy wordplay interfere with his flow. 

Nas often raps about life on the street -- his songs have an authenticity and nitty-grittiness that sets them apart from hip-hop poseurs.  (Some MCs seem to have learned everything they know about guns and drugs from the movies.  Nas's tracks often have a cinematic quality, but are more like documentary shot with a handheld camera than Scarface or New Jack City.)

I don't know if Nas is a fan of the Iliad, which describes Hypnos (who personifies sleep in Greek mythology) and Thanatos (who personifies death) as twin brothers.  I think Nas's description of sleep and death as cousins is more apt than Homer's description of them as twins -- sleep and death share certain characteristics, but are quite different.  (The Jewish Talmud says that sleep is 1/60th part of death -- more like cousins than twin brothers, in other words.)

Hypnos and Thanatos: "Sleep and His Half-
BrotherDeath," by J. W. Waterhouse (1974)
In "Enter Sandman," Metallica advises the little boy who is scared of the dark to "sleep with one eye open."  It is possible for humans -- especially children -- to sleep with one or both eyes open.  But if you do sleep with one eye open, you wouldn't see anything -- so it doesn't do you any good.

Nas probably isn't talking about sleep in the literal sense.  If the narrator of this song is caught off-guard by one of his many enemies -- that is, if he's "caught sleeping" -- his carelessness could result in his death.  

The CBS "eye"
Speaking of Jay-Z, he released a song a couple of years later that featured this line: "So I keep one eye open like C-B-S."

You get that, right?

2 or 3 lines believes in giving credit where credit is due, and I need to credit Rap Genius -- click here to read the Rap Genius commentary on "N.Y. State of Mind."

Here's "N.Y. State of Mind":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:


  1. I stumbled upon your blog yesterday while googling lyrics for Brian Eno's "The Great Pretender". What fun; lots of fascinating information, and it's already encouraged me to listen to a number of songs I might not have otherwise. Given your broad range, I'm somewhat surprised you've never touched upon any by Richard Thompson, a rather profound songwriter, at least in my humble opinion. If you haven't before, or haven't for a while, give his (and Linda's) 1974 "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight" a listen. And thanks for all the cool content!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I am somewhat familiar with the Thompsons music -- but they are only one of the many worthy performers that I haven't got around to blogging about yet. How would you like to write a guest post about that or another Thompson/Thompsons song? If so, please e-mail me at missouri2725@gmail.com.