Album Review: Nas’ “It Was Written”
by Rapjoint Lagos
It Was Written is the second studio album by American rapper Nas, released on July 2, 1996, by Columbia Records. After the modest commercial success of his debut album Illmatic (1994), Nas pursued a more polished, mainstream sound for “It Was Written”. Produced largely by Trackmasters, it departed from the debut's raw, underground aesthetic and embraced mafioso and gangsta themes. The recording also marked the first appearance of Nas's short-lived supergroup The Firm, featuring the rappers Foxy Brown, AZ, and Cormega.
Starting with the opening song, “The Message,” Nas puts all of his contemporaries on notice by proving to have the most lethal pen in the industry, rhyming, “let me let y'all ni**as know one thing / there's one life, one love, so there can only be one king / the highlights of living, Vegas style roll dice in linen / Antera spinning on millenniums / twenty G bets I'm winning them / threats I'm sending them, Lex with TV sets the minimum, ill sex adrenaline / party with villains, a case of Demi-Sec to chase the Henny / wet any clique, with the semi TEC who want it.”
The album’s lead single “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)” is an example of the album’s ambition. Nas taps his Columbia Records labelmate Lauryn Hill to sing one of the most memorable choruses of the era. Still enjoying the success of the Fugees’ The Score, which was released a few months earlier in February 1996, Hill helped the song chart on Billboard’s Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks, and Hot Rap Tracks. “If I Ruled The World” also secured Nas his very first Grammy nomination, in the category of Best Rap Solo Performance.
It Was Written’s second single, “Street Dreams,” followed the success of “If I Ruled The World” soaring higher on Billboard’s Hot 100 (#22) and earning its own Gold certification. A great example of Nas’ lyrical depth, he expands upon the dark but lucid narratives of eyewitness accounts inside the Queensbridge Housing Projects to script his novella of a hustler’s ambition. With the lines, “With the glaze in my eye, that we find when we crave / dollars and cents, a fugitive with two attempts / Jakes had no trace of the face, now they drew a print / though I'm innocent, ‘til proven guilty / I'ma try to get filthy, purchase a club and start up realty / for real G, I'ma fulfill my dream / if I conceal my scheme, then precisely I'll build my cream,” Nas paints a picture as vivid as any chapter from a Donald Goins novel.
Although acclaimed producers Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip were sorely missed on Nas’ second outing, DJ Premier does return to assist with one of the LP’s highlights, “I Gave You Power.” Nas’ first-person narrative of a reluctantly well-traveled firearm stands out to elevate Nas’ resume as one of hip-hop’s premier lyricists, if not the most superior of them all.
“Affirmative Action” formally introduces the hip-hop supergroup The Firm, which originally consisted of frequent collaborator AZ, fellow Queensbridge Housing native Cormega (later replaced by Nature), and protégé Foxy Brown. All four emcees offer stellar performances and frequently referenced rhymes that make the song an all-time favorite posse cut in rap circles worldwide.
Mobb Deep’s Havoc helps anchor the album for Nas’ hardcore loyalists with his two tracks “The Setup” and “Live Ni**a Rap.” The latter is one of the most cherished lyrical sparring bouts between Nas and Prodigy, reinforcing the notion that the two emcees always managed to pull the best from one another.
Produced by Dr. Dre, “Nas Is Coming” doesn’t deliver on its high, star-quality expectations in my humble opinion, whereas “Take It In Blood” overachieves with the production from veteran team Live Squad. Additional infamy from this collaboration arose later in 1996, with 2Pac’s posthumous release of The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which disparagingly mentions Nas several times by name and references Shakur’s falling out with Live Squad member Stretch.
In retrospect, Nas began recording It Was Written with as much organically grown street credibility as any artist has ever mustered. He used his lyrical prowess as industry capital and hired Steve Stoute as his manager, who helped deliver a big-budget album that returned on every investment. It Was Written’s videos helped elevate director Hype Williams to the head of his class for visual storytelling and extended the credibility of the Trackmasters as bona fide hit-makers. Most importantly, It Was Written was successful in elevating Nas and his brand of lyricism to worldwide mainstream audiences, where he could rightfully receive acclaim as one of the most prolific creative minds of his generation.
Lyrically, It Was Written doesn’t stray far from its glaringly reality-based predecessor, but the theatrically optimistic production led by Poke & Tone helped define the era alongside other 1996 album of the year contenders Reasonable Doubt (Jay-Z) and Ironman (Ghostface Killah). Now with 26 years’ worth of reflection, It Was Written proved successful in helping Nas achieve his greatest commercial success, while offering convincing testament for lifelong fans like myself to passionately argue that Nas is arguably the greatest and most well-rounded lyricist that hip-hop has ever seen and heard.
In conclusion, this is a classic album and perfect follow up to a top 3 hip hop ever. Some say it's better than 'Illmatic' - and while I disagree due to the better production and slicker hooks of its predecessor, the rapping on this album is definitely better. The content is interesting, the rapping is some of the greatest ever and it just runs so smooth and polished throughout its run time. There might be a few 9/10 or even 8/10 songs - but nothing on here is below great so it's a solid 10 in my opinion solidifying him as the only rapper (other than Eminem) to have more than one 10/10. Nas solidified himself as one of the top 10 ever.