It’s not too often that a once in a generation type of talent comes along in any field, but in hip-hop, those crowned as a messiah can be prone to flaming out before ever making good on their promise. However, Nasir Jones ( better known as Nas) is not one of those cautionary tales of not being able to handle the weight of the expectations thrust on his back. Sure, he’s had his lesser moments (Nastradamus) but overall, Esco has answered the bell time and time again and has remained relevant over more than two decades, making him one of the more tenured artists in the mainstream today. And with a litany of business moves, endorsements, and other ventures, it doesn’t look like Nas will be taking a reprieve from building on his legacy anytime soon.
But anyone familiar at all with Nas is likely aware that much of the mystique surrounding him and the reverence he commands largely stems from his debut album, Illmatic. Released in spring of 1994, the album was greeted with endless praise, earning a perfect 5-mic rating in hip-hop magazine The Source, as well as helping alter the art of lyricism, taking the template his hero Rakim had introduced in 1986 and adding his own wrinkles, all of which culminated in what many claim to be the greatest hip-hop album of all-time. But Illmatic would fail to garner much commercial success, stalling out at gold, leading Nas to link up with industry veteran Steve Stoute, who would become Nas’ manager and introduce him to Trackmasters, the production duo that would produce a large chunk of his sophomore album, It Was Written.
Released in the summer of 1996, It Was Written arrived under largely different circumstances than Esco’s previous effort. While Illmatic debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 with 59,000 copies sold in its first week, It Was Written instantly shot to the top slot on the album charts to the tune of 268,000 units sold, largely off the strength of the Lauryn Hill-assisted lead-single, “If I Ruled The World.” The radio-friendly track may have turned off those more accustomed to the stylings of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” but would become Nas’ most successful single to that point, marking his first entry into the top 20 of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Polarizing as it was, “If I Ruled The World” afforded Nas all of the tangible commercial success that had eluded his previous album and set the stage for what would prove to be a seismic release for hip-hop.
Nas sets off It Was Written with an introductory skit that sees the MC on a slave plantation and rebelling against his captors before being assaulted and lynched for his transgressions, a stark contrast from the onset of his previous offering. But those clamoring for the exuberant commentary of AZ, Nas’ co-star on the Illmatic intro, “Genesis,” as well as standout collaborations like “Life’s A Bitch” and “Mo Money Mo Murder” get blessed during the latter portion of the track, which sees the two briefly basking in their newfound success before Esco jumps into the festivities with the opening salvo, “The Message.”
Produced by Trackmasters, the beat, which contains a sample of “Shape of My Heart” by Sting and sees him showing a more refined flow while taking aim at rival New York rap phenom The Notorious B.I.G. After both released their landmark debuts within months of each other and simultaneously become the golden children of New York City rap, a rivalry between the two began to brew over who was the rightful owner of the bragging right that is being the King of New York. While Illmatic had brought Nas critical acclaim and made him just short of a deity to progressive rap fans, Biggie, whose own commercial successful dwarfed Nas’ at the time, was had managed to capture the mainstream appeal that had eluded Nas to the point.
With all indications pointing to a highly success sophomore release, Nas decided to throw down the gauntlet with the lines “Red dot plots, murder schemes, 32 shotguns/Regulate with my Dunns, seventeen rocks gleam from one ring/So let me let y’all niggas know one thing/There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King.” The jab was perceived as a clear shot at Biggie, who had taken to dubbing himself ‘Frank White, the King of New York,’ a shot the Brooklyn heavy would return on his own sophomore album, Life After Death, on the song “Kick In The Door,” on which he mocked Nas’ contractual stipulations while reasserting himself as the undisputed top dog in the five boroughs.
Unfortunately, the fans would be robbed of the opportunity to witness what had the makings of a historic war of words when the Notorious B.I.G. was slain in Los Angeles in 1997 while promoting Life After Death. In addition to provocation, “The Message” drew the ire of Tupac Shakur, who took umbrage with the song’s second verse, in particular, during which Nas rhymed about being shot in an ambush, with the lines “I got stitched up, it went through/Left the hospital that same night, what,” prompting Pac to return fire on his scathing cut, “Against All Odd.” Calling out Nas by name and writing off “The Message” as a “fairy-tale,” 2Pac flung the QB prodigy into the ruckus that was the war of words between the east and west coasts, but cooler heads would allegedly prevail the two rappers met in Times Square to discuss their differences, ultimately squashing the beef.
“The Message” may rank high on the list of iconic openers to a rap album of the past two decades, unresolved rivalries and bi-coastal friction barely scratch the surface of the masterpiece that is It Was Written. “Street Dreams,” the second single released from the album, may have been a blatant attempt at garnering radio and video airplay, but in hindsight, is far from criminal in sentiment and contains tons of insightful gems on the mindstate of young and ambitious black and brown men in urban America. From detailing his plans of wanting to wash his hands of the street life and go legit on the first verse, to reminiscing on his days as an impressionable pre-teen yearning for spoils of the criminal life with the couplet “Young early 80’s, throwing rocks at the crazy lady/Worshipping every word them rope-rocking niggas gave me/The street raised me up giving a fuck/I thought Jordan’s and a gold chain was living it up.” The vibes of innocence and naivete are exchanged for conceptual exploits on the visceral offering, “I Gave You Power,” with Nas rapping from the perspective of a gun.
While firearms are viewed simply as an instruments or a means to get to the ends, Nas entices the listener to have a regard for its own journey, experiences, and emotions, making for one of the most brilliantly executed records in the history of hip-hop. Known for his sharp attention to the details and his inquisitive nature, Nas allows both to shine through on “Take It In Blood,” a track that brings to mind vintage musings from Rakim. Musing “I never brag how real I keep it, cause it’s the best secret/I rock a vest prestigious, Cuban link flooded Jesus/In a Lex watching Kathie Lee and Regis/My actions are one with the seasons,” Nas’ flows with a steady precision that making his bars feel wise beyond the years of a kid barely out of his teens.
But two tracks that were among the more highly anticipated songs on It Was Written was Nas’ collaboration with Dr. Dre, “Nas Is Coming,” and the posse but, “Affirmative Action,” which featured a murderous lineup that included newly minted superstar Foxy Brown, AZ, and rising QB rhymer, Cormega. With the rampant animosity between the Death Row camp that Dr. Dre co-founded and the East Coast, the pairing was an unexpected, yet intriguing one, with rap enthusiasts drooling at the thought of the west coast’s best producer laying down a track for one of the east coasts most skilled lyricists to spill thoughts over. Despite being deemed as underwhelming due to the hype and expectations surrounding it, “Nas Is Coming” includes some of Nas’ most stylistic lyrical outings on It Was Written and although it rarely gets mentioned among the most memorable cuts from the album, its remains a riveting one. Speaking of memorable performances, “Affirmative Action” certainly fits that bill. A precursor to the firm album, the song sees the four MCs going for broke atop string-heavy production, courtesy of Trackmasters, and Nas and Foxy Brown turn in worthy performances, with the latter cementing her status as the preeminent female spitter in the mainstream at the time. “Affirmative Action” would set in motion plans for the ill-fated Firm album that would drop in 1997 and fail to resemble the classic in the making many envisioned when news of the project first broke.
Whereas Illmatic was an album strictly from Nas’ point of view, which was inspired by his immediate surroundings, It Was Written finds him trying out different scopes, mostly with favorable results, like “Black Girl Lost.” Featuring Jo-Jo Hailey of Jodeci delivering vocals on the hook and elsewhere throughout the song, “Black Girl Lost” is an open letter from Nas to young black girls that are physically overdeveloped, but emotionally and mentally stunted. Rapping “Could you believe Eve, Mother Earth of the seas/Niggas thirst you, you just let em hurt you and leave/What up mah, frontin like you naive/Push your man’s whip, calling police when you flip,” Nas certainly recorded this with the bottle popping, crew-hopping, women that often find themselves the object of affection to those within the hustler lifestyle and criminal element.
It may go unsung when measured against the fanfare that other choice selections on It Was Written gets, “Suspect,” which is produced by L.E.S., is also a superb composition that sees Nas doing what he does best, playing street reporter from the frontlines of the ghetto. Giving commentary on the daily occurrences that transpire atop the crack pavement, Nas is as earnest as can be as he recalls stumbling across a crime scene in his projects after someone’s been murdered. “I puffed the lila, just before I hit the scene for rilla, I’m all high/It’s late I’m looking down at the fella/Shit’s pushed in, ambulance placed him on some cushion/His mom’s had a stare I wouldn’t dare second look when I murk,” the ghetto griot spits as he gives the play-by-play on the grisly scene.
But in terms of cinematic value, It Was Written gets no better than “Shootouts,” as Nas weaves together two instances in which guns go ablaze, the first of which involves a crooked cop that him and his crew have marked for death after getting word that he’s been getting cozy with a neighborhood fiend. The latter portion is centered around a dice game gone wrong, the aftermath of which sees casualties lost. Perhaps in a act of foresight, Nas tops off It Was Written with “If I Ruled The World,” as if he felt vindicated enough by the previous thirteen tracks’ to feel comfortable enough to throw it in the mix for good measure.
At the time of its release, It Was Written received generally glowing reviews from most high-profile publications. The Source, which was hailed as the most respected rap zine at the time, spoke favorably of the album, with Marc Landas gushing “If ever there was a straight up genius in hip-hop, par excellence, his name would have to be Nas. Not just a hip-hop artist or rhymer or celebrity, Nas Escobar is a hip-hop visionary.” Critic Christopher John Farley also waxed poetic in his 1996 review of the album for TIME. “Nas, who hails from New York City’s Queensbridge housing projects, is clearly saddened and outraged by the violence he sees around him, and he’s out to create songs that are more than cathartic cartoons.”
Cheo Hodari Coker compared It Was Written to a lyrical version of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, a testament to the album’s layers of death that encapsulates what it means to make music that mirrors your environment, but Nas goes a step further, drawing from the stylings of Raekwon‘s Only Built For Cuban Linx, to bolster the storyline’s pizazz, ’cause what’s a good story without a teaspoonful of embellishment? It Was Written may not be as endearing or flawless as Illmatic, but neither is the class clown. And while the perfect student may get all of the good grades and be beloved by the faculty, the class clown is the one that the classroom gathers around when looking for entertainment or a good story that will keep them on the edge of their seats.
Sure, the class clown may be a little rough around the edges and can come off as contrived at times, but when you have to decide who will show you a good time, being perfect and refined can cause for a lack of excitement. Illmatic may be the standard bearer of all things lyrical and boom-bap in hip-hop, but It Was Written is the more engaging album and looms even larger in stature as the years pass by.