Album: It Was Written
Released: July 2, 1996
There has long been the sentiment among artists of any kind that making ‘art’ and making money are two mutually exclusive pursuits. The story of Nas’ first two albums would seem to both confirm and refute such sentiment. His debut album, Illmatic, is considered today to be among the greatest hip-hop records ever created but sold only moderately, partially due to Nas’ own aversion to publicity and marketing. However, on the other hand, that would imply It Was Written, his sophomore album, which would go on to become his most commercially successful album in a career spamming two full decades, is unworthy of being called ‘art’, a statement that is clearly untrue even though it is generally agreed upon that it dwells in its predecessor’s shadow. While Illmatic had the underground charm, an authenticity that came from its unpolished sound, It Was Written sounds more complete in some ways. There are the hard-hitting street beats coupled with Nas’ flawless flow that made its predecessor so popular but mixed with a more commercial side as well, with a couple of pop samples and some R&B hooks.
In terms of content, Nas sticks to his strengths with a mixture of street glorification, semi-Mafioso semi-gangsta and some vague social commentary. While the more pop-oriented songs don’t offer much beyond a smooth sound and a tight flow, it’s his more ambitious tracks that stand out on multiple listens. Where the track ‘Street Dreams’ feels like a Diddy-esque joint with plenty of braggadocio, the stars of the album are tracks ‘The Message’, ‘I Gave You Power’ and ‘Silent Murder’ which feature smarter, more insightful lyrics laid over simpler beats than the more commercial tracks like ‘If I Ruled The World’ or the Dr. Dre produced ‘Nas Is Coming’. This is not to say that these so-called commercial tracks are lacking in quality in anyway, though it does feel as though Nas sounds more comfortable over the simpler minimalistic beats. The album is also one of the first appearances of Nas’ short-lived but much-hyped supergroup ‘The Firm’ –the group showed a lot of promise on the one track on this album ‘Affirmative Action’ with each member delivering a capable verse.
The best way of describing the album’s sound would be to call it an enhancement of the sounds from Illmatic. The same gritty, ‘street’ beats still persist and even the more commercial tracks, such as they are, still retain some of that quality. None of the tracks on It Was Written have what could be described as an optimistic sound – even the ‘Sweet Dreams’ sample is turned to a lower key to give it a more depressive sound, which is thoroughly appropriate given that the ‘Sweet Dreams’ have been turned into ‘Street Dreams’. Most of the production work was done by Trackmasters though as mentioned above there was a collaborative effort between Nas and Dr. Dre, which raised some eyebrows at the time due to the East-West beef going on at the time. DJ Premier combines wonderfully with Nas on ‘I Gave You Power’ with a simple loop setting the stage for one of Nas’ most interesting metaphorical songs.
Almost two decades from the release of the album, it’s interesting to see how the album has risen in status alongside, or perhaps because of, its elder sibling. The common saying these days is that Illmatic is the album that rappers should aspire to, but It Was Written is the album that they can learn from and that’s a hard statement to argue with. While It Was Written has a few dull tracks, it is nevertheless a complete album with great production and excellent verbal work. More importantly, it covers all its bases; there’s something for everyone whether it’s the intellectual social commentary of ‘Black Girl Lost’ or the catchy choruses of ‘If I Ruled The World’ or the classic Nas delivery on the rest of the album.
I Gave You Power
If I Ruled The World
|I Gave You Power||DJ Premier||5.0|
|Watch Dem Niggas||Trackmasters||4.0|
|Take It In Blood||Live Squad||4.0|
|Nas Is Coming||Dr. Dre||3.8|
|Black Girl Lost||Trackmasters||3.0|
|Live Nigga Rap||Havoc||3.0|
|If I Ruled The World||Trackmasters||4.5|
|Silent Murder||Live Squad||4.5|