Nas Teaches How To Come Up With Rap Lyrics
“Nas: What I like about (Whitman) is that he’s descriptive. Part of my thing has always been details. This picture in my head…
Harvard Professor: There’s a bigger world outside of the immediate focal point.
Nas: Yeah, and multiple meanings.
Harvard Professor: And you do that in ‘Rewind’ there’s always another world behind where you are. (Waltman) is the first urban troubadour, but what you add to Whitman… you add with many lines that have all the humility about that city that Whitman’s has, and all of this energy to process the city that Whitman has…”Nas Interview With Harvard Professor
In this clip, we see living Hip-Hop legend Nas sitting down with a Harvard Professor discussing exactly how Nas comes up with lyrics that help describe not only the verbal science of how to rap…
But as we’ll see Nas describe in further detail in a second, how to rap like Nas by lyrically creating a “universe” for listeners to inhabit.
Nas does this by using small details to ironically create big descriptions and weaving those details into a cohesive storyline.
However before we take you into the universe of Nas’s lyrics, we need to first ‘set the table’ and establish where Nas’s influences came from, what he did in rap that nobody had done before… and how he ironically uses those new ideas to make even better songs.
#1 Establish The Character
From his very first album, Illmatic (widely considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time), Nas would establish characters in his raps – much like a film, novel, or play – most notably starting with his own character or persona.
Let’s look at some lines from the song “Represent” on Illmatic:
“They call me Nas, I’m not your legal type of fella…
Moet drinking, (certain plant) smoking street dweller
Who’s always on the corner…
The brutalizer, crew de-sizer, accelerator
The type of other who be pissing in your elevator”
Take a second and think of how speaking to an audience like this creates a relationship between Nas as a character, as our personal narrator and tour through the streets of the Queensbridge projects in New York…
And us as listeners.
You can almost imagine getting a “tour through the hood” with this character Nas has he drinks Moet, smoking that stuff, and while your back is turned looking around the block, he takes a leak in the elevator!
Let’s hear Nas describe to another professor how he cultivated this “character” to be both relatable on the one hand, just a normal guy chilling in the hood and drinking, and menacing by the descriptions of the more degenerate behaviors he lived in his youth: ‘
Professor: It’s amazing because you’re still seen as the most ‘above ground’ underground rapper. It’s amazing because you’re at the top of the chart and yet you’re still seen as a rapper’s rapper… an MC’s MC. How are you able to balance that out by talking about all of the things on the one hand but interjecting the politics on the other hand?
Nas: I think people can relate to just a normal guy. Yeah there’s some flash with the things I do… that’s rap music, it’s about bragging and talking about things the average person doesn’t have or live… but I think people see a regular guy in me and they hear it in my music and I think I humanize myself in the music all the time and I think that goes a long way.Nas Interview With Michael Eric Dyson
Therefore the first step to understanding how Nas comes up with lyrics is to find the relatable aspects of the persona he develops and pepper them in with classic bragging and menacing descriptions as he does on Illmatic.
If you’re interesting in learning how to rap yourself (or are already a rapper) click HERE to pick up our free step-by-step video course How To Write A Rap On Any Topic In 20 Mins. Or Less…
But let’s dive a little deeper into the lyrical framework that inspired Nas to build his character in step #2:
#2 Motivate The Character
In the beginning of rap, much of the lyrics of the genre were split into two different categories:
- “Look At What We Have”
- “Look At We Don’t Have”
“Look At What We Have” is braggadocios, “look-at-my-Cadillac” rap in tracks such as the first major Hip-Hop release, “Rapper’s Delight”.
“Look At What We Don’t Have” is social commentary about the urban environment rap, such as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5.
While both of these are still main lyrical staples for rap today, it wasn’t until the seismic shift of a rapper like Rakim that “philosophical” rap really begin… meaning more like, “Here’s I Do What I Do”.
Think about arguably Rakim’s most iconic lines from 1987’s “Paid In Full”:
Thinkin’ of a master plan
‘Cause ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent
So I dig deeper but still comin’ up with lint
So I start my mission, leave my residence
Thinkin’ “How could I get some dead presidents?”
I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid
So I think of all the devious things I did
Here we see a rapper that isn’t just saying he has a nice car or that he lives in the hood… Rakim is taking the listener through a storyline of his MOTIVATIONS through the character he’s building in the rap.
How Rakim Influenced Nas To Come Up With Lyrics
Rakim is such a major influence on Nas that he literally has a song dedicated to him called “The Unauthorized Biography of Rakim”.
In Nas’s case, an excellent example of his “motivate the character” tactics come on the first few lines of “Life’s A B***h” featuring AZ:
“I woke up early on my born day, I’m 20, it’s a blessing
The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh and
My physical frame is celebrated ‘cause I made it…
One quarter through life, some godly-like thing created”
The imagery of expressing his gratitude for his youth and visualizing his success as already having occurred is a crucial step with how Nas came up with lyrics back then, and how he still does to this day.
One way crucial Nas is able to show his character’s motivations is by describing them as they change in the environment explained here:
#3 Move The Character Through Time
Now, many would consider Nas to be the greatest storyteller in rap history due to his ability to tell a complete film-level story in a 3-4 minute song.
The way Nas is able to do this is by not only establishing and motivating his characters as described in the steps above, but by having the characters in his stories move through a series of events in their life through time.
Take a minute to re-listen to “NY State of Mind Pt. 2” verse 2 where he describes the destruction of his crew of friends in his hood over time:
Had eight partner’s growing up, eight turned to seven…
Seven turned to six n****s, got two in heaven…
Six of us, holdin’ it, now it’s five rollin’ thick
The sixth one’s parole’s flipped, five n****s went to fo’ quick
The verse continues until finally a crew of 8 people goes down 3 over the course of less than 12 bars.
How does Nas accomplish this intricate storyline in such a short set of lyrics?
By quickly moving his characters through time. Two of his friends died, which left the six to move on, however the sixth one went to jail, and so on.
Therefore one of the main ways Nas comes up with lyrics is that he places characters he’s established in his raps into chronological narratives that can demonstrate change while making it rhyme…
By clarifying little details such as the sixth friend had his parole flip, Nas is adding little details that help “build the universe” as described here:
#4 Small Details Make Big Descriptions
One thing that separate Nas from other rappers is how many details in a situation he can describe in a short period of time.
Whereas most rappers will just say, “we out in Vegas balling”, Nas will start a rap:
Pacino life, G a roll, casino dice
At the Mirage, Vegas strip, neon lights
Gamblers, puffin’ cigars, couples and stars
Flashin’ cameras, dealers, shufflin’ cards
In four short bars, Nas not only specified where he is, he has described Vegas down to a level that even someone who’s never been there could visualize and truly feel exactly what it’s like.
What we’ve just quoted is the beginning of one of Nas’s best story-raps, and arguably one of the greatest stories in rap history: “Undying Love”.
In that particular track, which details Nas’s unexpected discovery that his girl was cheating on him, there is a portion of the song where Nas describes what it was like for him to walk through the door of his house after he gets back in Vegas:
I walked in through the back door entrance
Shocked it was unlocked, when I walked in, I smelled incense
Chased by a w**d aroma, empty Guinnesses
And lipstick marks on like three empty Coronas
A pair of blue jeans on the carpet; size 12 Timberlands
Somethin’ swingin’ on the ceiling fan, I stopped it
Swingin’ slower and slower
On the last swing I saw it was a G-string and heard laughin’
Do you notice the amount of MINUTE detail that is being described here?
Do you see that by writing lyrics this way it is basically film-novel level writing, down to describe the size of his enemy’s shoe and the image of his girl’s G-sting on the ceiling fan swinging slowly has he discovers her infidelity?
As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details” and by placing these minute details in his stories and even regular songs, Nas shows that one of the best way to be considered a living lyrical legend is by not always following that “less is more”.
#5 Answer: Where Do We Go From Here?
And lastly, on top of all of his descriptive raps, we would be remiss to not mention his “prescriptive”, in other words “what should our people do to rise up raps”.
When you listen to a song like “I Want To Talk To You”, “I Can”, or “What Goes Around (Poison)”, you can hear not only a rapper describing the problems of his community… but actually offering solutions.
This is one overlap that Jay-Z and Nas have despite their previous beef and eventual collaborations.
Jay-Z often answers the “where do we go from here?” question by offering economic solutions and ways to use your paper to affect change…
Nas often answers “where do we go from here?” questions by offering history lessons, saying we need to work on ourselves, and support our brethren.
Both ways of seeing things have merit to them, and therefore someone wants to be a rapper or is interested in part of what makes Nas’s lyrics so intriguing and frankly refreshing…
…One place to look is that he doesn’t just rap about what’s going on in the hood… he has many notable tracks where gives his two cents, unlike most rappers who just collect a check and go home.
Now, if you enjoyed this article we have a Nas biography which you can read about HERE or if you’re more interested in learning the science of how rappers come up with lyrics, we’ll point you an article HERE where we analyze rappers such as Eminem, J. Cole, Lil’ Wayne, and others.