With the 23rd year anniversary of Nas’ legendary sophomore album-It was Written, it is a good time to reflect on how great this album was and why it was important to hip hop, and the infamous Illmatic vs It Was Written debate.
Coming off what would become a street phenomenal album, Illmatic received much praise, and with it’s 5 mic rating from The Source magazine, many felt that Nas was ready to repeat that work. With Nas’ memorable verses on Raekwon’s Only built for Cuban Linx album, Mobb Deep’s The infamous, and AZ’s Do or Die album, these works did something his debut did not-which is SELL! As highly as Illmatic was spoken of by critics, the sales did not equal the praise. With that, Nas would jump-start a movement that the East coast would follow.
On his God’s Son album, Nas said “making a hit is easy , get a famous singer to do a hook there you go platinum CD”. Having Lauryn Hill, who was one of the hottest up and coming artist in music at the time, being the featured guest singer for the lead single If I Ruled The World (Imagine That), would allow Nas the ability to still have a song that was able to get respect and love from the streets, tape players, as well as the club DJs and radio programmers. This is where Nas would find a space that allowed him to get video and radio play but still keep his fans saying that Nas is still “spitting”. Street dreams along with another remix with R.Kelly- the radio and video stations at the time had Nas’ music in heavy rotation. With his music being seen and heard , Nas would sell, and sell he did . It was Written is Hip hop’s 1st album to debut as #1 on the Billboard 200.
With Nas showing something that he did not show and was not able to on Illmatic, we were able to see his growth be made manifest on It is Written. Nas’ creative writing in storytelling tracks-which would be something Nas is well known for, was introduced to us on the DJ Premier produced I gave you Power. It’s the story of a gun gone rogue. The track Black girl lost-which featured K-Ci from Jodeci told us of a young woman’s struggle with harassment and working in the corporate world which ended up with her working as a stripper in a bar. Nas was around the age of 23 when he recorded these songs, and possibly even younger when he wrote them. Nonetheless, he showed us a maturity that was far beyond his age. Together, Nas and Dr. Dre produced a track to bridge the tension between the east and west coast, which would later be apart of the blueprint of what would lead to The Firm album.
Many seem to under value It was written because it is constantly compared to Illmatic. Many push it into Illmatic’s shadow. Claims of Illmatic’s value was because of the legendary Production list . In all honesty, many put more value on the list of producers than they do the product. Did Nas deliver to you another memorable album without Pete Rock, Large professor, DJ Premier, Q-tip and LES team? Yes he did. It was written kept DJ Premier and LES, but replaced Pete Rock for Dr. Dre and Q-tip for Havoc.
Live Squad makes the surprise non Tupac album appearance for 2 tracks- Take it in blood and the cassette bonus-Silent murder, but here is the where the issues arise. Track Masters was replaced by Large Professor as the primary producers for the album. Extra P-being the hood champion , produced for Rakim and Eric b, Kool G Rap and his own group-Main Source. When the name Track Masters get mentioned, the hip hop authentic think of artists like Faith Evans, Soul 4 Real and Mary J Blige while many overlook the work that they did for Big Daddy Kane, Notorious B.I.G, Kool G Rap, and LL Cool J. The track masters’ niche of making commercial hits minimizes the fact that they gave Nas some of their most dark productions. Exactly what is wrong with beats like Shootouts, Affirmative action,The message, and If I Ruled The World? The answer is nothing. Let’s stop putting importance on names, but instead go by the music itself. Illmatic may have been the underground special where as It Was Written is the commercial success that still kept the underground happy. Which would be a theme that many east coast artist would try to follow.
Remembering my young 14 year old self after listening to It was written and telling my 16 year old friend ,“Hey, you know I’ve always liked Nas, but with this album, he really won my attention”, It was written is a classic-not just because it is flawless, but also because it has done what the 5 mic rating was supposed to mean-it has stood the test of time. Lets celebrate it!