Nas Will Prevail
All three versions of Nas' It Ain't Hard To Tell are classic in their own right.
The rendition most know is the important early single from Illmatic, where Large Professor and Nas managed to cook up an anthem in just over three minutes and without a standard refrain. Here Nas references everything Greek mythology to 1980's Sylvester Stallone movie work to an Iranian professional wrestler, the sum total of these points to prove, "I'm dope, as are my rhymes." For his part, Large Pro most notably samples Michael Jackson's Human Nature to create the da-da-da that's as close to a conventional hook as It Ain't Hard To Tell offers. The production's further interesting, because, at one time, there's multiple vocals on top of each other, the blow of a horn, and a synthesizer, and then, all at once, in the middle of the verse even, the track's drums and bass are isolated. All in all, it's one of the album's lighter, more brief moments, but just as memorable as any throughout its forty minutes.
The second classic-status song in this trilogy is actually the original. Known as Nas Will Prevail and passed around primarily through the bootleg circuit, it's Nas plus Large Professor plus Human Nature once more. However, this edition clocks in at about ninety seconds longer with extended verses that the label must have deemed too "involved" for radio consumption. Moreover, there's no vocal sample to catch on to and the beat is a bit more subdued. On the other hand, Nas' rap, though changed up some, fits into the same genre of MC'ing: brag-heavy and simile-centered.
Interestingly enough, while both similes and brags are found throughout Illmatic and the whole of Nas' catalog, they have never been a real staple of his career. But it seems as if early Nas, the one found especially on Live at the Barbeque and Back to the Grill, Halftime and here was more "like"-minded and boastful, in the spirit of a punchline rapper almost. In fact, using "like" to test for the appearance of similes, in doing a search on Illmatic's nine songs, plus Nas Will Prevail, you can see the change in his style from 1992's Halftime days to later 20th birthdays (of course, Life's A Bitch, for example, is only one verse compared to Prevail's three, but the ratio is still clear):
Number of Appearances of the Word "Like" on Illmatic:
This is not to suggest that the tracks with a high count of like's are somehow less lyrically credible than the rest, however, they do point to the evolution of Nas' rhymes.
The final It Ain't Hard To Tell entry maintains those same rhymes but features a remixed production look from Large Professor, and a genius bit of sampling. Interestingly enough, here the beat is more straightforward than its predecessors and actually comes equipped with an identifiable and quite notable hook. This hook is propelled by the same near-shriek found on Illmatic and the call of "it ain't hard to tell", but the real winner comes next, with what sounds like a sample saying, "Nas is the king of the disco." In reality, LP just took a Biz Markie line from Nobody Beats The Biz and cut "recognized as the king of disco" so that it came off as tailor-made for the QB MC. It's a master move in a series that offered many such examples.
Nas: It Ain't Hard To Tell
Nas: It Ain't Hard To Tell (Large Professor remix)
Nas: Nas Will Prevail
BONUS: Biz Markie: Nobody Beats The Biz
BONUS: Michael Jackson: Human Nature
*Of the appearances of "like" on One Love, only two are traditional similes, i.e., Nas also relies on the word to note resemblance between similar objects and in the informal way people use it to fill pauses in speech.
**We know that NY State of Mind itself is, in part, a combination of two early-on tracks, I'm A Villain and Just Another Day In The Projects.