What Millennials Should Know About… Nas’ ‘It Was Written’
VIBE spotlights music’s most essential timepieces for Gen Y. You gon’ learn today
NAS It Was Written (1996)
Selling point (in one sentence): Nasty Nas’ second album delivers the same stellar Illmatic lyricism, tinged with mafioso posturing and funneled through musically grander (see: radio-friendly) instrumentals.
The singles: “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That),” “Street Dreams,” “The Message”
Deep album cuts: “Shootouts,” “I Gave You Power,” “Black Girl Lost”
Peak moment: The most comprehensive flexing of Nas’ verbal abilities on one song, maybe ever, goes down on “I Gave You Power,” a chilling parable told from a pistol’s POV. There’s foreshadowing, conflict, irony, metaphor, suspense, social commentary. Just look at this warped personification: “Always I’m in some shit/My abdomen is the clip/The barrel’s my dick/uncircumcised, pull my skin back and cock me/I bust off when they unlock me.” A spoiler-free synopsis: Nas is a conflicted seven-inch, four-pound Desert Eagle, fed up with a life of carrying out his owners’ deadly deeds. But can one gun’s premeditated cease fire stop a cycle of violence?
Peak moment (Pt. 2): It’d be remiss not to celebrate the song that catapulted Nas to 3 million copies sold of It Was Written. A remake of Kurtis Blow’s 1985 hit of the same name, “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)” is the journal of a dreamer trapped in a miserable habitat, but still wishing for his utopia on earth. It’s like a hip-hop take on John Lennon’s classic, “Imagine.” One year after The Fugees dropped The Score and two years before The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, L-Boogie swooped in with a flawless vocal performance. Her bridge, an interpolation of The Delfonics’ “Walk Right up to The Sun,” is especially classic.
Bet you didn’t know: The seeds of Nas and Jay Z’s legendary battle were planted long before Hov stepped foot on that Hot 97 Summer Jam stage in 2001. Nas sent a nudge five years prior, on the album’s first song, “The Message,” when he commented “Lex with TV sets, the minimum.” It was a one-upping reference to a car Jay drives in his own “Dead Presidents” video; the song coincidentally samples Nas’ voice.
The prime target of “The Message,” though, was Biggie, who was anointed “King of New York” on his July 1995 cover of The Source—towering over the World Trade Center. The two friends turned rivals were vying for New York’s top spot. Nas makes his point succinctly: “Seventeen rocks gleam from one ring/Yo, let me let y’all niggas know one thing/There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King.” B.I.G. responded one year later, with “Kick In The Door,” from the posthumously released Life After Death double album.
There’s one more member in this beef casserole, though. Nas’ verse two storytelling about getting shot and leaving the hospital in the same night hit too close to home for Tupac Shakur, who checked himself out of Bellevue Hospital Center three hours after getting surgery following the infamous 1994 shooting at Manhattan’s Quad Studios. ’Pac took it as a personal slight and accused Nas of trying to co-opt his real-life episodes on “Against All Odds.” The two icons deaded the issue, but ‘Pac was killed before he could alter the version of his response record, which appeared on The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (also posthumously released).
Bet you (also) didn’t know: With “Nas Is Coming,” Esco became the first prominent New York rapper to work with Dr. Dre in the midst of the media-egged East Coast vs. West Coast tensions. The collaboration, along with the subsequent track “Affirmative Action,” led to the formation of the Dre-and-Trackmasters-helmed supergroup The Firm, which featured Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown and Cormega. (The latter MC was later ousted and replaced by Nature). The foursome dropped The Firm: The Album in 1997.
RapGenius this: The closing to Foxy Brown’s 32-bar verse on the aforementioned “Affirmative Action.” The Firm’s first lady, who’d already shined on the LL Cool J posse cut “I Shot Ya (Remix)” the year prior, blows your mind with Stephen Hawking-level mathematics on the coke game. Many TI-83 calculators have been tossed in frustration trying to keep up with her number play (still doesn’t add up, 18 years later… but sounds great!):
“We got to flee to Panama but wait it’s half-and-half/Keys is one and two-fifth/so how we flip/Thirty-two grams raw, chop it in half/Get sixteen, double it times three/We got forty-eight, which mean a whole lot of cream/Divide the profit by four, subtract it by eight/We back to sixteen, now add the other two/that Mega bringing through/So let’s see, if we flip this other ki/Then that’s more for me/mad coke and mad leak/Plus a five hundred cut in half is two-fifty/Now triple that times three/We got three quarters of another ki” —Foxy Brown, “Affirmative Action”
Most slept-on: Trackmasters’ dreamy production that graces the second half of the album intro, after Nas’ rebellious slave skit (Impossible to hide that NY accent, smh). Those looped chords, lifted from The Lost Generation’s 1970 hit “The Sly, The Slick, and the Wicked,” is so buttery smooth, you might wish Nas had spit a short 16 to kick things off, instead of shooting the shit with AZ. More on Trackmasters’ production in a bit.
Lines best for status updates:
> “Two sips from being alcoholic, 999 thou from being rich” —“Street Dreams”
> “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin’” —“If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)”
> “I got no game it’s just some bitches understand my story” —“Watch Dem Niggas”
> “I never brag how real I keep it, cause it’s the best secret” — “Take It In Blood”
> “Life’s a bitch but God forbid the bitch divorce me” —“Affirmative Action,” Nas
> “I need some Henn to bend me over” —“The Set Up”
> “Why shoot the breeze about it, when you could be about it?” —“Take It In Blood”
> “Bond is my life, so I live by my word” —“Suspect”
> “The highlights of living/Vegas-style roll dice in linen” —“The Message”
> “I keep a low pro as if I owe” —“Suspect”
> “Growing up project-struck, looking for luck, dreaming” —“Street Dreams”
> “Watch dem niggas that be close to you/And make sure they do what they supposed to do” —“Watch Dem Niggas”
> “Peep the jewels black man, it’s even better than gold” —“Shootouts”
Synopsis: Both rap heads and cultural tourists have spent the greater portion of 2014 celebrating the greatness that is Nas’ Illmatic, as it reached its 20th anniversary. For what it was, the album is perfect. Every beat bangs. Not a single bar is wasted. And no other album up to that point had more vividly (and poetically) evoked public housing plight in NYC. Still, the pettiest nitpicker could argue there’s not one track on Nasty Nas’ virgin LP that’d play at a BBQ and trigger a two-step. Enter It Was Written.
Poke and Tone of legendary production duo Trackmasters were given the tightrope task of taking Nas far beyond his Queensbridge blocks, while keeping his ghetto griot raps intact. So they cued up their catchy, glitzy melodies—samples of Whodini and Sting and Stephanie Mills—and injected some harmony. There’s a good amount of singing here; long before Drake was singing on damn near every one of his records, Nas took a risk by crooning the hook to “Street Dreams.” Elsewhere, Jojo of Jodeci and Lauryn Hill sell the hell out of “Black Girl Lost” and “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That),” respectively. Foxy Brown’s rap-spoken vocals on the chorus of “Watch Dem Niggas” is a nice touch, too.
But you never lose sight of why you’re here: Those tightly tangled rhymes. And Nas comes with his best. On “Shootouts,” still one of his finest narrative tracks, he describes Tanisha, an ’hood Amber Rose look-alike who’s secretly assisting an undercover cop: “She let Jake investigate from her window/Cause she’s a nympho/suckin’ dick and coughin’ up info.” But Nas is more than street reportage and criminal capers, here. His world view is growing. On the album’s lead single, he fantasizes that he could “open every cell in Attica/send ‘em to Africa.” Fourteen years later, he’ll record a joint album with Damian Marley called Distant Relatives, dedicated to the Motherland.
If there’s a drawback to It Was Written, it’d be that the 14-track opus seemingly mimics the landscape of hip-hop in 1996. Soulful, jubilant samples recall Bad Boy’s early reign. Dr. Dre brings synthesized G-Funk (“Nas Is Coming”). Havoc, still riding the wave of The Infamous, sprinkled Mobb Deep’s pixie powder on “Live Nigga Rap” and “The Set Up.” Nas adopts his Escobar persona on IWW, hopping on the mid-’90s mafioso rap tide that swept New York City hip-hop following Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Still, Esco’s five-star rhyme book puts its stamp on each trend. While there was early resistance to It Was Written from Nasty Nas purists, the album has been certified triple platinum by the RIAA, the most successful LP of his career. And it’s aged brilliantly. If Illmatic is the album that made Nas a legend, It Was Written is the one that made him a bonafide superstar. Imagine that. —John Kennedy (@youngJFK)