From Street Disciple to Lyrical Messiah: A Look at Nas' Sophomore Classic 'It Was Written' 20 Years Later
For decades, Nas has been synonymous with rap genius. A legacy that began with his now iconic debut, 1994's Illmatic, the Queens, New York native sparked a debate that pit his future albums against his alpha project. That same discussion especially holds true to Illmatic’s predecessor It Was Written, where Nas experimented with the Mafioso themes (see: "Nas Escobar," a play off Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar) and strong, narrative plot lines that have become his signature. Fresh off the 20-year anniversary of his sophomore album (the set was released on July 2, 1996), we're looking back on what is arguably his most consistent album -- an LP that told the story of an unknown street disciple's rise to lyrical messiah.
It Was Written debuted to astronomical success, selling more than 260,000 records in its first week, beating out many of Nas' peers in the hip-hop genre, most notably his future adversary (turned respected peer) Jay Z, who dropped his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, a week before on June 25. However, Nas' commercial success led to a mix of criticism from hip-hop heads, especially ones who worshipped his holy street text Illmatic. Journalist Kris Ex voiced his slight displeasure with It Was Written in comparison to his famed debut in a Sept.1996 issue of Vibe.
“The problems with It Was Written are not in what is written or how it flows but in its consistently aggressive attempts at pop music,” wrote Ex. "When Nas arrived, he was touted as a microphone god. He remains a poignant figure with a panoramic view of the real and metaphorical ghetto. And his flow is still astounding. But Nas requires a sonic tapestry as multihued and breathtaking as his rhymes -- and then the pop success he obviously desires will occur, organically. It Was Written is adequate. Unfortunately, though, Nas’s own second coming isn’t nearly as satisfying as his first one." It seemed that It Was Written was never quite given its just due based on its predecessor.
Still, the Queensbridge rapper combined his efforts with key players that led to some memorable tracks. Steve Stoute, Nas’ former manager at the time, knew the importance of not only having a chart-topping single, but an album that had equal selling power. Stoute, also known as "The Commissioner," realized what was missing during Nas’ debut album: marketing. As told to Complex, Stoute knew he had a difficult road ahead of him aside from the well-known “sophomore jinx” many artists fall into after coming off a strong first album. “I was 25 years old, trying to build awareness for the album," he said. "The whole launch strategy with that album was very critical. It’s when I first realized that I was a marketer. The first thing that we did -- since it was called It Was Written -- was make notebooks. I had people handing out notebooks with the launch date on it. That was innovative, as far as I’m concerned." He also offered another freebie to potential consumers. "Another tactic we used was giving everybody parking tickets. I took NYC parking tickets and I copied them and printed them out," he shared. "On one side was a parking ticket and on the other side was the release date. Everyone thought they got a parking ticket and then it was just promotion for a Nas album."
Creative promo aside, Nas was a master at letting the music speak for itself. With a world-renowned production team on Illmatic including DJ Premier, Q-Tip and Pete Rock, Nas' It Was Written introduced elevated sounds that felt new to the rap scene at the time. Predominantly manned by production duo Trackmasters (they were also managed by Stoute at the time), the beatsmiths were able to shape Nas' flow with rhythms, melodies and synths unlike any canvas his bars had touched prior. The most blatant difference was his use of skits throughout the 14-track LP beginning with “Album Intro,” which finds a slave seeking freedom and rebelling against his master.
When It Was Written dropped in '96, hip-hop was on the cusp of a widely known East Coast versus West Coast beef that lead many artists to choose sides. During that time, Nas did something no other rapper at the time would do -- collaborate with an artist from the opposite coast. Thus, the Dr. Dre-produced track "Nas Is Coming" was born. Though seemingly different from the other tracks on his sophomore album, "Nas Is Coming" presented a visual opus of words with a flair of spooky synths that made the Queensbridge rapper magnetic and gave him a platform to humblebrag. The track even transcended the coastal hip-hop drama.
Apart from the widely popular lead single "If I Ruled the World" featuring Lauryn Hill, It Was Written offered a symbolic guest appearance. "Affirmative Action" introduced the world to the short-lived hip-hop group The Firm originally consisting of Nas, AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown. After creating an album that focused solely on his point of view with Illmatic, the so-called "God’s Son" took a different approach with It Was Written, which lead him to take on the personas of not only people but things -- a task he accomplished with the brilliant "I Gave You Power," where he combined his poetic schemes with metaphors and personification while rapping from the perspective of a gun.
The rapper's enduring rhymes mirror his outward appearance -- he's still the baby-faced MC who can spit fire since entering the rap game as Nasty Nas on Main Source’s "Live at the Barbeque." It Was Written should be spoken about in the same regard as Illmatic, as the two projects are hip-hop classics that continue to hold their own weight.