Warning – the following piece has light spoilers from the final season of Ozark.**
For the average viewer of Netflix’s Ozark, the meaning behind the music they used to help tell the gritty and tragic story was probably missed entirely.
Which, incidentally, is exactly why I loved it so much.
The second half of the fourth and final season of the dark drama began for me before I pressed play. The title, Sleep Is The Cousin of Death, immediately piqued my interest. It is a line from one of my all-time favourite tracks, on my all-time favourite album. I’m far from being alone in my insistence that Nas’ Illmatic stands alone. It’s a timeless, autobiographical blueprint for living a hard life.
I loved sifting through the dozens of articles written just yesterday about how Illmatic stitched this episode together. Maybe it confirms a bias I have about how the album has always been a cultural barometer for virtually anyone who struggles with conflict, either with themselves, others, or their environment.
Ruth Langmore, played by the visceral Julia Garner, fills her mind with Illmatic as she plots out the murder of Javi Elizonndro (Alfonso Herrera), the nephew of cartel leader, Omar Navarro (Felix Solas). Both Herrera and Solas deliver stand-out performances and accent the score brilliantly. They are gangsters, thinking like gangsters, and acting like gangsters. When Ruth is trying to establish Javi’s location, we can hear Nas’ N.Y. State of Mind.
The show then brilliantly uses a cameo appearance by Killer Mike to hammer down the significance of Illmatic’s co-star status in the episode, offering his take on Illmatic as a whole. Killer Mike then advises Ruth take it easy on the coffee, to which she replies, “I never sleep.”
— James DiFiore (@jamesdifiore) April 29, 2022
When Killer Mike asks her why, she teases, “You know…” – a silent homage to the next lyric, which is the name of the episode, sleep is the cousin of death. For me, and I suspect many hip hop heads, this scene was everything. It managed to balance the meaning of the song with the rising tension of the episode, and even calibrates the way our minds think when inspired by an appropriate soundtrack. Basketball players do it when they listen to hip hop to get them hyped before a game, and in this case Ruth is listening to the best album of all-time to get in the right state of mind, if you will, before going ahead with her revenge plot.
If watching a white, female hillbilly get inspired by a hip hop classic seems like a juxtaposition to you, that is perhaps due to the lack of understanding of how Illmatic transcends culture. Illmatic is culture. In fact, it is cross-cultural, from Queensbridge to the Ozarks, it always applies.
Watching the rest of the series was an exercise in trying not to wonder how the show would find its way back to that hip hop score in the first episode. There are moments where it uses hip hop again, sprinkling the episodes with lesser-known tracks and reminding us of how the beginning of the end began, but it isn’t until the last moments of the final episode where we get the payoff in the form of one of the greatest hip hop tracks ever, They Reminisce Over You. The Pete Rock and CL Smooth classic foreshadows the fate of Ruth with such painstaking accuracy, that this viewer almost shed a tear at the vignette they created, especially when you consider that Pete Rock was one of the producers Nas worked with when he made Illmatic.
Classic, golden era hip hop became the connecting tissue to tell the last chapter of a stand-alone series, and by doing so helped create a television classic in the process.