Fans can be selfish at times and I admit, I’ve been guilty of this as well. As for Nas, following the street classic Illmatic was impossible due to the cult like appeal. It’s not a secret that Illmatic didn’t sell the same way that Snoop’s Doggystyle or Biggies Ready to Die sold. It was time for a change and a shot at commercial success. Nas was faced with a decision in regard to Management, Production Team and Marketing. The follow-up would be called It Was Written.
It Was Written hit the streets and radio with maximum impact during the summer of 1996. For those that don’t know, 1996 was an amazing year for Hip Hop. The Source Magazine gave the album 4 Mics which is a GREAT review, “If I Ruled The World” featuring Lauryn Hill was on fire, and album sales reached over 2 million copies. I loved it from the moment I heard it walking from a local Record Store called School Kids back to UNCG's campus. Ok, back to the music. For the record, Jay-‘z Reasonable Doubt debut album that is now considered a classic received 4 mics that same summer as well. I'm one of the people who feel NAS should have received 5 Mics for IWW but the "Ghost of Illmatic" was haunting Nas. Side note, Jay-Z should have received 5 Mics for Reasonable Doubt as well, but back to Esco. So, how was It Was Written so disrespected you ask? Well, for some reason there was a segment of fans that said NAS fell off or the album was too commercial. Both of these notions are actually comical.
Ok, I’ve given this my final laugh in regard to IWW not being a RAW street gem. Let’s be serious for a minute and do the knowledge with facts and logic. First off, NAS didn’t fall off as lyrically he was actually a more polished MC and his flow was perfected. Nas wasn't just the young raw MC anymore. Nas lyrical upgrade and creativity can be heard on “I Gave You Power”, “Shootouts”, “The Message”, “Take It In Blood”, “Suspect” and the track “Silent Murder” which is only available on the cassette version. I still don't understand why "Silent Murder" was omitted from the CD version. Looking at the track listing, I'm not sure how any fan would consider this project a commercial attempt. I mean yes, "If I Ruled The World" was the single but NAS remade the 80's Kurtis Blow track of the same name. What's wrong with that? Nas also sampled Whodini's amazing 80's track "Friends". Nas still use "Friends" at concerts as a transition track into his song. When did paying homage become a bad thing? Ok, lets get back to It Was Written. I haven’t mentioned the posse cut “Affirmative Action”, “Watch Dem Niggaz”, “The Set Up” or “Live Nigga Rap”. Oh yeah, what about “Street Dreams” which was an album single or “Black Girl Lost”? Nas was in an absolute storytelling zone on IWW. The vivid imagery pretty much blessed every track. Maybe the subject matter threw fans off?
If we’re being honest, It Was Written is actually a Mafioso influenced album with a gangster theme. Think Kool G. Rap's LP's or Rae's Cuban Linx album as a reference. Kool G. Rap ushered in the Mafioso Style and Nas might have thrown people off with the gangsta storytelling. Nas is an artist though and we can't lock this type of talent into one style of rap. Now, lets talk BEATS. The underrated production was handled by The Trackmasters, Premo from Gang Starr, Havoc from Mobb Deep, L.E.S & Dr. Dre. This doesn't sound like the radio friendly Timberland or The Neptunes to me, but I digress. I truly believe it’s safe to say that It Was Written is one of NAS top 3 albums, possibly his 2nd best. Many younger fans consider this NAS best work. Biggie Smalls and TUPAC mentioned NAS as a result of It Was Written’s success. Nas was in a battle of sorts with B.I.G. & PAC during this era.
Biggie attacked NAS on “Kick In The Door” off 1997's Life After Death Album...
"Your reign on the top was short like leprechauns
As I crush so-called willies, thugs, and rapper-dons"
Nas was also called Esco and Willie Esco during this time and after selling over 2 Million Records, Nas was on top of New York Hip Hop after the album was released.
PAC attacked NAS on “Against All Odds” during the Fall of 1996, just a few months after It Was Written was released. Before "Against All Odds", PAC decided to name NAS in the first track on the album "Bomb First" with the statement below.
"Nas, the alleged ring leader, is furious at 2Pac...Excuse me – Makaveli's verbal assault on Mobb Sleep, Notorious P.I.G., and several other New York rappers...Jay Z, from "Hawaiian Sophie" fame, Big Little whatever...And several other corny sounding motherf**kers are understandably shaken up by this release."
On PAC's final album he said Nas wanted to be like him, stole his life story, and that he doesn't sound like Rakim. We know people called NAS "The Next Rakim" after Illmatic. So, as you can see, NAS shook the game up after It Was Written and apparently other rappers understood this more than fans. Nas was now a suitable adversary for the two MC's, now deceased. NAS was no longer just the King of New York Underground Hip Hop. Nas also found himself in the middle of the East vs West Coast Rap War along with Snoop Dogg. Of course this was a rap war that could have been avoided but that's for a another blog at another time. It Was Written made NAS a STAR so other prominent MC's had to take notice. They had no choice. IWW has aged gracefully over the past 21 years and I challenge fans to revisit this gem.
My VERDICT – Nas had finally found his voice, flow and was more comfortable on the Mic as he was a more well-rounded MC on It Was Written. I mean, this was 2 years after recording Illmatic and he had simply gotten better. NAS learned how to structure songs into more complete stories. Nas wasn't just rapping over beats at this point. He came off more musically inclined. During the next 2 years NAS would record numerous tracks for an upcoming Double LP called “I AM” that was never released due to bootlegging (Thanks Napster). It Was Written was the jump start to a more balanced NAS.
NAS - "I Gave You Power" - one of the best songs in rap history to me... Peace