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Begin like a violin end like Leviathan

A violin underwater

Image: Josep Molina Secall via Unsplash

  • Track: It Ain’t Hard to Tell
  • Artist: Nas
  • Album: Illmatic
  • Year: 1994

Economical. That’s the word I’d choose to describe this awesome tune. At only 388 words, it’s at the low end of the word count spectrum. But Nas is certainly liberal with the similes, and like an overworked taxidermist, he stuffs a lot of them into this track.

Nas also does away with any sort of chorus to concentrate instead on delivering three verses in quick succession. Apart from the short hook where he steps aside for that irresistible Michael Jackson sample, Nas barely pauses to breathe. It’s only fair he gets a chance to top up his oxygen levels every now and then.

It Ain’t Hard to Tell is the final track on Nas’s brilliant debut album Illmatic. Released in 1994, it launched Nas onto the scene. You can immediately tell from the iconic cover what this album’s going to be about: unflinching tales of growing up in a deprived, violent neighbourhood.

Nas raps about the world he knew, so of course there are references to gun crime and violence. But there are also wide-ranging high-brow references, all delivered in his distinctive, natural poetic style.

If you’re sceptical about rap being poetry, then you’ve never listened to Nas. You could write an essay about the poetry of this track alone, and a dissertation about his back catalogue. But we’ll stick to the similes here. If you’re still not convinced, here’s Nas discussing some of this track’s lyrics with a Harvard professor of poetry. Definitely worth a watch for his mixture of pride and bemusement.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Nas was around 19 years old when he wrote these lyrics. My greatest achievement at that age was clocking 1,000 hours on Mario Kart 64.

It Ain’t Hard to Tell has been remixed a lot (pretty much to death) down the years. A couple stand out for me. The Creators’ Llaidback Mix, produced for Illmatic’s 20th anniversary, is worth a listen. It’s also appropriate: watching Nas in interviews, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s often on the verge of nodding off. Between you and me, I think Nas might be partial to the odd marijuana cigarette. Don’t tell his mum.

But the remix crown has to go to legendary producer Danger Mouse. One of Portishead’s greatest tunes gently blended with Nas’s deft lyrical dexterity? I’ll take ten. Whisper it, but I think it’s even better than the original.

Nas fans among you might be wondering why I’m looking at this track and not a more obvious candidate, 1999’s Nas is Like. Even the title is a tantalising half a simile. Well, yes, it’s a track that’s rammed full of similes, but so is this one. And Nas is Like leaves most of them until the last verse, which could make for quite a tedious post (or perhaps I should say a more tedious post). I’ll get to it eventually. Look out for it around 2039.

Anyway, it ain’t hard to tell I’ve whittered on long enough. On to business.

The lyrics

View the annotated lyrics on

[Verse 1]

It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail
The mic is contacted, I attract clientele
My mic check is life or death, breathin’ a sniper’s breath
I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps
Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket linin’

A lovely double simile to start us off. I’d say that the film version of The Shining is more in the public consciousness than the book. Both are deep, but Kubrick’s attention to detail is notorious – as is the amount of people who wasted hours of their lives analysing the film. They could have better spent that time mastering the shortcut on Wario Stadium. Idiots.

The second simile of the double is much more straightforward. After the Beastie Boys dropped one, this is our second diamond-related simile to go into the database.

Hit the Earth like a comet—invasion!
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian: half-man, half-amazin’

Another double! I guess that’s a double-double. What a treat. The first is a fairly straightforward reference to Nas hitting the scene, seemingly out of nowhere.

The internet hip-hop simile nerd approves of talking in the third person. The Afrocentric Asian is a concept from Five-Percent Nation ideology, a kind of off-shoot of Nation of Islam. We’ve met them before. This is our fourth simile to reference Nation of Islam in just 12 tracks. It’s obviously a big influence on American hip-hop.

‘Cause in my physical I can express through song
Delete stress like Motrin, then extend strong

Motrin is a trade name for ibuprofen. There is a tiny bit of evidence that ibuprofen might help with stress and anxiety, but it’s not known for it. Is it just a cheap way to force the rhyme? Well, possibly, although arguably being pain-free helps relieve stress. We’ll let Nas off because the next bit is amazing.

I drink Moët with Medusa, give her shotguns in Hell
From the spliff that I lift and inhale; it ain’t hard to tell

What an evocative image that is. Shotgunning in this context is exhaling weed smoke into someone else’s mouth. Back in my hood (ahem) we’d call that a blowback. But great to think of Nas being so badass he gets high with Medusa.

[Verse 2]

The buddha monk’s in your trunk, turn the bass up
Not stories by Aesop
Place your loot up, parties I shoot up
Nas, I analyze, drop a jew-el, inhale from the L
School a fool well, you feel it like Braille
It ain’t hard to tell, I kick a skill, like Shaquille holds a pill

After a few more lines littered with sneaky marijuana references (did I mention I suspect he’s a fan?), Nas chucks in a couple of nice similes here. The second simile is the first of three sport-related similes in this track. Basketball megastar Shaquille O’Neal can comfortably hold a basketball (pill) in one of his massive hands. Nas is that good.

Vocabulary spills, I’m Ill plus Matic
I freak beats, slam it, like Iron Sheik
Jam like a TEC with correct techniques

Sound the album title drop gong. ‘Illmatic’ was slang from Nas’s neighbourhood, meaning ill, but better. Simple really.

Fans of 80s and 90s wrestling, of which myself and my school friends most definitely were, will recognise the name Iron Sheik. Off the back of US-Iran relations in the 80s, he became one of the most notorious baddies on the WWF roster.

The TEC-9 (shortened here to TEC) is a very common hip-hop reference. It’s a US-made semi-automatic pistol that was rife in gang crime until the mid-90s. Apparently it jammed all the time. Nas jams all the time. QED.

[Verse 2]

So analyse me, surprise me, but can’t magmatise me
Scannin’ while you’re plannin’ ways to sabotage me
I leave ’em froze, like heroin in your nose
Nas will rock well; it ain’t hard to tell

As far as made up words go, I’d put ‘magmatise’ up there with the best of them.

Apparently snorting heroin is a thing (jeepers), and causes a kind of chill, what with it being an opiate. This line always makes me think of Uma Therman’s character snorting heroin by mistake in Pulp Fiction. Don’t get your cocaine mixed up with heroin, OK kids? Even better, play Mario Kart instead. No-one ever died doing that (probably) and I’m sure it’s just as fun.

[Verse 3]

This rhythmatic explosion
Is what your frame of mind has chosen
I’ll leave your brain stimulated, niggas is frozen
Speak with criminal slang, begin like a violin
End like Leviathan, it’s deep? Well, let me try again

Beginning like a violin makes me think of an orchestra tuning up. All quiet and refined, before reaching a rap crescendo similar to a Leviathan.

What’s exciting is that this is the second track we’ve looked at to rhyme similes involving ‘Leviathan’ with ‘violin’. It’s not the most obvious of connections. So was DOOM making a cheeky nod there?

I discussed in that post that Leviathan can mean a few things depending on who you are. Again, I’m going to go with the biblical interpretation here (from Revelation).

The other thing the two tracks share in common is beginning with ‘It ain’t.’ Coincidence? Well, yeah. Definitely.

Wisdom be leakin’ out my grapefruit, troop
I dominate break loops, givin’ mics men-e-strual cycles
Street’s disciple, I rock beats that’s mega trifle
And groove even smoother than moves by Villanova

The Villanova Wildcats are a basketball team. According to Genius they ‘caused an upset against Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA finals and the rest of its competition from the late 1980s to early 90s.’ I have no idea what this means other than Nas is quite good at rapping.

You’re still a soldier, I’m like Sly Stone in Cobra

There seems to be a two/double theme developing here, as this is the second time we’ve welcomed a Sylvester Stallone reference into the database. Given how huge he was in the 80s and early 90s, it’s not that surprising that he’d crop up a lot in the hip-hop I listen to.

Stallone’s character in Cobra, Lieutenant Marion Cobretti, is a renegade member the LAPD’s elite division (AKA the Zombie Squad). He’s hardcore, in other words.

Packin’ like a Rasta in the weed spot
Vocals will squeeze Glocks
MCs eavesdrop, though they need not to sneak
My poetry’s deep, I never fell
Nas’ raps should be locked in a cell; it ain’t hard to tell

That’s a nice simile image to end on: a group of Rastafarians huddled together smoking in their favourite spot.

Nas is so good his vocals fire the guns. Despite what he says, I’m glad Nas’s raps aren’t locked away, because they’re ace.

All told, that’s an extremely respectable 22.52 words per simile from Nas, our best so far. Economical, you could say.

The stats

Words per simile:22.53
Length:3m 19s
Similes per minute:4.52
Hours of Mario Kart 64 clocked up:Countless


    • Rayner

      It’s a banger all right. Really enjoyed listening to the whole album this week while I ruminated over the similes like an obese cow

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  2. Payam Illmatic

    I don’t think he’s referencing Villanova the school. I think he’s referencing Tito Villanova who was a star soccer player at the time.

    • Rayner

      Hey thanks for the comment! You might be right there, although I find it difficult to imagine Nas being a fan of Spanish football. Vilanova was at Celta Vigo (reasonably successful in Europe) in the early 90s and hardly a big star.

    • Mr. Hood

      Nas is definitely referencing the Villanova Wildcats basketball team who were really good all throughout the 80’s & won the tournament in ‘85! Every black ghetto kid in the US knew how smoothly Villanova was in terms of ball! This wasn’t about no fuckin soccer bruh! Lol

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