EWA100 - #32. Nas - It Ain't Hard To Tell

32. Nas - It Ain't Hard To Tell (Columbia. 1994. From the LP Illmatic)

Mike Dikk: It’s unfair to narrow down Illmatic to one song. It’s a record that needs to be listened to as a whole, and there really isn’t any song on the entire record that’s better or worse than any other. You can argue with me until you’re blue in the face, but there isn’t a better album recorded by a solo rapper than Illmatic. It is technical perfection. Nas comes off as very obsessive compulsive to the point where he made sure every single syllable flowed smoothly. There isn’t a misstep to be found, and for someone like me, a person who lives his life in permanent general disarray, a technically flawless album is an amazing feat. I have a hard time trying to figure out how to do simple every day things, like clean my bedroom, and when it comes to my own writing, I’m pushing it if I go past a second draft. Nas on the other hand easily went through hundreds of drafts to reach this level.
In recent interview, Nas said that Illmatic represents his life from age 0 to 18, and he was basically writing it for all of those years. It definitely shows, and it makes it a lot easier to digest that his other albums never lived up to Illmatic. He had an 18 year head start for his debut and trying to squeeze that kind of brilliance into a three year burst isn’t going to happen.
“It Ain’t Hard To Tell” was the first single off Illmatic, which is why it’s on this list. It was the default go-to single, but as I already said, it’s by no means better than any other song on the record. I remember Nas had some hype building up from a couple guest spots with Main Source and MC Serch, but back in those pre-internet days, EVERYONE had hype building up after doing a guest verse.
When this single dropped, I was working with my uncle at this local chain video store called Videoplus. It was a real shady operation. The owner not only got busted renting out bootleg videotapes, but a couple years later he got busted AGAIN for scalping tickets from his own Ticketmaster machine. I learned that all those FBI warnings before videotapes were bullshit since he stays in business long after getting busted, and I also built my initial videotape collection by stealing/borrowing kung fu and horror movies from any Videoplus chain store I happened to be “working” at for the day. Since the owner was a sketchy individual, I didn’t really have to worry about getting caught stealing tapes.
One day while working with my uncle, he was telling me about this song he heard on Hot 97 and how he wanted to know who it was because the song mentions Sly Stallone and Cobra, and my uncle is a crazy Sylvester Stallone fan to the point that he needs to own anything he’s done or even anything where he’s mentioned. It didn’t take that long for Hot 97 to replay the song, and I recognized the voice and told him it was Nasty Nas and how I read in The Source that he was supposed to be the next big thing in rap music.
Shortly after, the issue of The Source came out that gave Illmatic the perfect five mic rating. It was a milestone for me too, because it was the first issue of The Source I bought that had an actual perfect five mic rating in it. I don’t know if I insisted that my uncle buy the CD or if he bought it on his own, but I know he got it not too long after the review came out and I had him make me a copy.
Now I won’t lie to you. It’s not like I listened to the tape and the heavens parted and angels came down with harps and danced around my dirty basement bedroom while I had a thirty minute orgasm with cum shots perfectly in sync to the kick drums on the record. In fact, I didn’t really understand why it got five mics when the Wu Tang record went completely overlooked and The Chronic didn’t even get five mics. It literally took me years to finally digest the tape and wrap my head around it and figure out why it was the most perfect rap album in the history of music. I think if I never became such an over analytical prick, I would have never comprehended it, and only people who are truly over analytical can really love music. Well, ANYONE can love music, but not to a point where it’s all you think about and all you want to do. Illmatic is for those types who take pride in dissecting everything and nitpicking over any minute mistake that can be found. It’s not a record that you can be on the fence about, and if you say you don’t like Illmatic, you’re credibility as a music lover is destroyed.
I can praise the Illmatic album ad nausea, which is good and all, but it’s not a good “singles” record, which is why “Ain’t Hard To Tell” is in the 30s and not say, number 2. If this list was full length albums, I would have had it no lower than number 2. If you single out one song, in this case “Ain’t Hard To Tell”, I’d say the 32 spot is a pretty fair ranking, but at the same time, you could put the nine songs on Illmatic against any other artist from ANY genre’s nine songs from a single album and Nas will come out on top every single time.

Raven Mack: You know, I will get overly analytical as well. As I've gotten older and dorkier (due to being home all the time from having a family - if you are young and solo and wasting your time online obsessing over stupid shit like hip hop, that's not a good move - pussy is so much better when fresh), and as hip hop has become less and less artistic in an album-oriented way, I've started fine-combing the concepts of albums. And Mike is right, this album is one perfect cohesive unit, which is amazing because it was one of the first major releases to feature a slew of hired gun producers, which is commonplace nowadays. Nowadays, you can tell it's a bunch of different producers, because the overall offering has no cohesion or connection between songs. That's not the case with Illmatic. Every beat is variations on the same, and every song is tightened up completely lyrically.
This song was the one we chose, because it was the single, thus the video that showed up on BET and hyped everybody the fuck up to run out and get Illmatic. I had heard the Main Source song featuring Nasty Nas, and had read all the Source hype engineered by Serch to get everybody in a tizzy for Nas, but none of that really fired me up to go cop the album (although to be honest, at that point in my life I was dropping $100 every Tuesday when new releases came out on new 12-inch singles and full-length tapes, so I would've bought it regardless). This song did however. It was one of those songs where every turn of phrase you could see being a DJ cut for a future song. Every fuckin' one. (This is also why I always thought that Jay-Z line about "you made it a hot line, I made it a hot song" was a pretty big cop-out on Jay-Z's part, and why I never took him serious as a challenger to Nas' pedestal, even before "Ether" came out and silenced any chitter chatter otherwise.)
I never did get the 12-inch for this song though, and to this day that bums me out. I sold off my "Life's a Bitch" single years ago, and still have the "If I Ruled The World" single, the first one off Nas second and far less intricately detailed full-length release, which I still play fairly often, and every time I do, I can still visualize seeing the "Ain't Hard To Tell" single in the racks at Willie's Records on Broad Street, downtown Richmond, and me passing it by.
A lot of what Nas talked about in that one interview Mike mentions (I read it, too) shows you why so many MCs suffer from a sophomore slump. You have all these lines developing in your head for years and years that you tighten down to polysyllabic perfection, and then you get a deal and throw them all down to a recorded offering and they're gone. That's it. You sort of do your best with what new experiences you have afterwards for a few albums (like Nas did), and then you get nostalgic yourself for that initial raw hunger and the perfection you were cultivating back then (which Nas has done as well). But you can never recapture that. It's gone. You have to grow and do other things and accept the changes and still try to find a way to get your metaphorical dick hard like it was that first time. I could count on maybe half of one hand rap albums I consider better than Illmatic, but Nas has never come close to achieving something even halfway as good. He's mostly been running on the fumes of this record his whole career, and when you consider how he's still held so prominently within the hip hop, that shows you how insanely great this shit was back then, and now, and probably forever. Or at least until as long as humans and their recorded sound pattern rhythms are a part of forever

Download: Nas - It Ain't Hard To Tell

Watch the video.