One cannot reference Illmatic without paying close attention to the track, “New York State of Mind”. The track with the same title by Billy Joel is a romantic ballad where he expresses his love for New York City, despite visiting other beautiful cities in America. Joel fanaticizes with the beauty ofCentral Park, going to the opera on Broadway, and scenicbeautiful boat rides up the Hudson River. This life of luxury and opportunity does not exist in Nas’ “New York State of Mind”.Nas’ “New York City State of Mind” refers to his hometown,Queensbridge, a housing project where blacks are trapped like rats in an environment plagued with drugs and violence “Full of black rats trapped”. Unlike Joel, there is no chance to get awayand visit paradise, In Queensbridge housing projects you do not dream of Central Park or boat rides up the Hudson, life was close to hell as Nas eloquently states. It was either survive, orthe housing project was going to consume you. “Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain”. In Queensbridge the only thing you were escaping were stray bullets destined to kill you “Niggas be running through the block shootin”. The living conditions were mediocre for blacks’ only project buildings where the hallways had graffiti and the elevator smelled like urine. Queensbridgewas an environment where everyone had to be thick-skinned. This housing project was not Frank Sinatra’s beautiful song“New York, New York” which states if you work hard you can make it in New York and you can make it anywhere.
With employment lacking in poor neighborhoods, leading a life of crime had to be largely accredited to the deindustrialization of the “snow belt” (Freeman 303) this played a massive role in shaping the economic landscape of the North East, which was the dominant region in the nation in manufacturing jobs and economic power. However in the 1970’s-80’s, the economic power of the North East started to deteriorate and was now shifting to the “sun belt”, the Southern and Midwestern states (Freeman 306) . Southern states with their ample cheap land and lax union stance created a win- win situation for corporations. Corporations started to move their jobs and headquarters to the south. In the 1970s and 1980s New York lost more than “800,000 residents” (Freeman 304) and was hit “particularly hard, with the local unemployment rate hitting 12 percent in 1975 as many services disappeared and crimeincreased” (Freeman 304). Nas addresses the increasing crime rate and lack of governmental regulation or support in his song. Specifically, he asks his listeners to open their eyes to the diminishing resources available in their communities.
“I keep some E&J, sitting bent up in the stairway/Or either on the corner betting Grants with the cee-lo champs/Laughing at baseheads trying to sell some broken amps”
These rap bars illustrate how the typical day was spent; with no real source of employment, present Queens Bridgeresidents led unproductive lifestyles. In the above lines, we can see Nas’ increasing concern and frustration with the limited resources offered to Black communities. He writes, “Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined”. While whites were rewarded financial and social stability, meanwhile the blackpopulation, overlooked for the same opportunities. Unfortunately, due to the downturn in the economy, minorities took the brunt of the socio-economic issues facing the North East at the time and in return received subpar services. Without employment and descent living conditions present in everyday living, there was no viable option to make it out of Queens Bridge.”I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”.The opportunities for advancement were very limited and young males had to resource to a life of crime to make it. “Be having dreams that I’m a gangsta”, this shows a sad reality that a community filled with intelligent and talented individuals whereyoung men only aspire to become gangsters to accomplishsuccess. This gangster persona led many to fall in love with the idea of making it to the top like Scarface’s Tony Montana. Tony Montana was an outlaw who defied the system and achieved the ultimate rags to riches story. This mentality was present in many living in Queensbridge, Nas also acknowledged this being part of who he was in his song. “I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine,Holding an M-16”. Scarface was a fictional story but many followed this model and picked up a gun to sell drugs and fulfill their dream. For the black youth of Queenbridge there were no aspirations of attending universities or accomplishing degrees, for the young black youth the streets where the university, crimewas the degree, guns were the books and death/wealth/ prison determined the success of your career.