1 Beat, 2 Songs
The unreleased Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive features a piano-laden beat and the in-and-out sound of some kind of musical shaking device. The unreleased You Don't Know Me also features a piano-laden beat and the in-and-out sound of some kind of musical shaking device. In fact, their beats are essentially the same. Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive is one of the lost I Am double-LP tracks, while You Don't Know Me can be placed, to the best of my knowledge, at least before Stillmatic's release. Moving past their matching production, Nas attacks each beat differently.
Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive was a casualty of Sony's decision to not let Nas put out everything he wanted and bootleggers' insistence that everything be heard early. It's floated around on mixtapes and online for years and was the initial showcase for the some-kind-of-musical-shaking-device beat. Moreover, proving that however maligned the post-It Was Written period of his career has been, circa 1999, also holds many of Nas' most daring and creative concepts and stories, unfortunately too many never to be released or only years down the line. Here he lays out two stories that both end with a rather simple conclusion, "things only go so well until they go really bad." In the first story, Nas plots the path of a player on the rise, who "used to be a bum till he had a six-month run." With a bit of success to his name, our killer in focus later overplays his hand and takes a bad trip to the barbershop. He finds out, say it with me, "the hardest thing to do is stay alive."
In these raps, as Nas provides the audience a sense of the scene and play-by-play like any good ball game broadcaster, the details are generally the most impressive aspect of his stories. Beyond merely describing the gruesome barbershop execution or the type of weaponry sported by the leads, geography also plays an important role. In name-checking Gary, Indiana, Nas gives the story context, a location that grounds the happenings in a kind of familiarity. These episodes aren't going down in some abstract, indeterminate alternate reality; they're towns with names and street signs, stories themselves. This same effect is accomplished in the second story, "coke head Saundra, she grew up in Gowanus." Breaking down the specifics in the opening line, Nas lets us follow along on a trek from the rags of these Brooklyn projects to later Long Island riches, "house in Dix Hills, next to Brooke Shields." BK's Bergen Street is referenced as well.
You Don't Know Me is more brag-oriented, with a bit of menace thrown in for good measure, "we gouge out your eyeballs if you've seen too much." (The only copy of this track I've ever found has an intro by DJ Absolute, where he gives props to LES. Because of this, we can probably assume LES is the producer behind our some-kind-of-musical-shaking-device beat.) Part of Nas' menace seems to be sent in the form of a subliminal to his one-time sparring partner, Jay-Z, "fake rappers in doo-rags get shot up at their concert." Recall how Jay was doo-rag friendly for a time, though not as often after the beef. The song is also memorable for its opening lines from the second verse, "I smoke weed like them 60's rebellions, hippies on heroin / spliffs inhaling, what I speak strictly for felons." Not only does the simile used instantly give you this great idea of a gang of Berkeley flower children knee deep in something hemp outside the Chancellor's office, but an "h"-sound alliteration, an understated visual, and a clear mission statement further enhance the rhyme.
Additionally, Nas does with You Don't Know Me what he often does on tracks with a more brag-filled center. Yes, there's the Mercedes-commercial tie in and the murderous threats, but his stream of consciousness ultimately takes us to what many fans would call "conscious rap." From paying a sort of macabre tribute to the lost souls of black folk ("they let us off ships, the soul of man was lost and trapped in / but every ghetto, every hood, no matter where the town / it's all haunted, all on top of slave burial grounds") to preaching his particular brand of spirituality ("people rich and poor, without God to worship / see, we would be more lost / gotta believe in something or there would be no laws"), Nas hits up both sides of the aisle. Cynics would likely scoff at these or similar lyrics, maintaining a standard "Nas is a hypocrite" plea. However, as to reflecting both an occasionally socially-aware and an occasionally socially-regressive point of view, isn't having more than one side, a dual nature, simply part of being a human? Beyond the chromosomes and the skin cells, contradictions make us who we are.
Nas: Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive
Nas: You Don't Know Me