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Street Dreams: Revisiting Nas’ ‘It Was Written’ Album Decades Later

Looking back at the impact of Nas’ sophomore album through the eyes of writer J. Pablo. As a lifelong New Yorker, he has covered music and lifestyle for publications such as The Village Voice, Billboard, and VIBE for the past 15 years. Here, J. Pablo puts his thoughts down about what the album truly stands for.

“Nas has a new song out yo…”

Mike Price from Corona, Queens shoves me excitedly as he shares the morning news during the pre-first period cipher. I ash the blunt on my Asolo boots accidentally from the shove. He smokes while I find Kool G Rap’s 4,5,6 cassette in my backpack and fast-forward to “Fast Life.” This will have to do for now.

That night I try to record the new song off the radio, no dice. Next day no dice. Finally driving in my brother’s Volkswagen Golf we hear it. Angie Martinez plays it on HOT 97. I’m hyped for a minute before I realize I’m not at home recording it.

It was great. It was the introspective and contemplating Queensbridge as a microcosm for the-world-that-I-liked-Nas, (mixed with some observations about the street life and balling hard of course). The next day it gets played at a school jam and me and Mike Price laugh as the crowd reacts. I almost shed a tear—Nas Is Coming.

After years of people championing Ready To Die and Tical, Nas was finally winning over the masses. But it wasn’t such an easy transition. The process that went into this album wasn’t nearly the same.

You put your entire existence into a single body of work. Your close friends have gotten killed or sent upstate with football numbers. You’ve put those traumatic experiences and a slew of others deemed standard for a child dwelling in the rotten apple. All these factors culminate as the most concise (and in my opinion, best) hip-hop album of all time. The acclaim of all sorts abounds — except where it counts. The album doesn’t sell.

Now you’re creating your follow up album. The sophomore jinx pressure is on and you’ve got your peers going platinum to boot. What do you do?

You create It Was Written.

After the single with Lauryn made its rounds, the album made its presence felt almost immediately. It was definitely released at the onset of summer and pretty soon every BBQ and house party was bumping it.

From the jump, you knew that even though there would be elements of Illmatic sprinkled throughout, this was a wiser Nas. Aside from the slave skit, The Trackmasters sampling Sting “The Message” lets you know there will be no attempts to hide Nas’ attempts to crossover.

From there the listeners get acquainted with Nas Escobar over Trackmasters production on “Street Dreams” and “Watch Dem Niggas.” Both are crystal clear narratives of life in mid-1990s New York — unflinching violence and Nautica vans. He ups the ante however with “I Gave You Power.”

With NYC murder rates and gun violence still very much an issue in 1996 Nas speaking out about the way guns get passed around from hand to hand and hood to hood was extremely timely and poignant.

“Take It In Blood” resonated deeply. It was vintage Nas but also not. Nas had seen too much to maintain the wide-eyed wonderment to his writings on Illmatic. This is a more seasoned Nas. He’s got a little money to play with now. Also, the hood has changed. Hoodies and Timbs have been replaced by DKNY sweaters and Hilfiger button-ups (Timbs were still there though). Parasucos have replaced Guess jeans. The Pretty thug era is full blown.

This becomes more apparent with “Nas Is Coming” and its a janky Dre beat (yeah I said it). Still he whizzes right through and is on the more familiar sounds of one of the illest posse cuts ever with “Affirmative Action” and the vengeful “The Set Up.”

Then the album takes an unexpected turn. There’s a girl record but not in the “I Need Love” LL style type. He spins sonnets instead for the young black girl lost in the world trying to hold down a job “but your boss is into getting screwed.”

This was a new Nas for us. He had always woven loads of social commentary within his rhymes and “I Gave You Power” was genius but this was the first time Nas rapped so thematically about the plight of the black woman. It was his “Keep Your Head Up.” No wonder ‘Pac was salty with him. It wasn’t the line about getting shot and leaving the hospital the same night it was “Black Girl Lost.”

“Imagine that/ that’s why I Hardly kick those bragging raps…”

No, seriously it was the beginning of the thematic, social commentary songs that didn’t really rock so tough (I wanna talk to the mayor). Still, the album is so rich with cinematic details (Jump out the Range empty out the ashtray…) that Nas is undoubtedly (Sunshine on my grill/I spill/ Remy on imaginary graves/put my hat on my waves…) staking his claim for King Of New York.

“Suspect,” “Shoot Outs,” and “Live Nigga Rap” show a lighthearted but deadly accurate young gunner twirling his pistols ala Emilio Estevez (Nas is/Minaj a Trois-es/on Mt. Airy Lodges).

To end the album Nas leaves us with the single “If I Ruled The World.” It sounds different now that you’ve been indoctrinated by the new thoughts of the entire body of work that accompanies it. It sounds more like the attempt to maintain who he is but gain some commercial footholds by enlisting Lauryn Hill. Still, the song was an album favorite.

In a lot of ways It Was Written did more for me than Illmatic. The line that struck a with me most though was “A thug changes and love changes and best friends become strangers.” High school and running around in New York City had taught me a lot. I had lost some friends over trivial beefs and serious ones (some to jail and even death already but that’s another story) — and some close friends were now strangers (or worse) to me. That was okay though. When I heard Nas rap about it I realized it was a growth thing, a part of shedding old skin and conquering new land.

You can’t stay in Queensbridge forever. Ask Jungle.

Now depending on whether you copped the CD or the cassette you hear “Silent Murder” which was only available on the cassette version and some overseas versions. The happy steel drums are a bit misleading due to the serious subject matter. The song combines insightful verses about NYC life as per usual, both political and grimy at the same time with Nas whispering the hook.

It Was Written is a masterpiece.