Two years after releasing his classic, heralded debut, Illmatic, Nas came back with It Was Written, a great piece of work that is underappreciated by most because Nas set the bar so ridiculously high with his first record. People looked at the liner notes and saw that neither Pete Rock nor Large Professor produced any tracks on Nas' sophomore effort, and they then dubbed it a bust without even listening to it (actually I'm just assuming, but that probably did happen in some cases).
It Was Written was actually predominantly produced by Trackmasters, as they were involved in laying down seven of the album's 13 beats, with Havoc, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Dr. Dre, and Live Squad rounding out the remaining cuts. Even with the absence of both Pete Rock and Large Professor, the instrumentals on this album are very good and suit Nas to a tee.
As expected, the hype for It Was Written was off the charts, and that obviously contributed to the massive amount of disappointment it caused in the hip-hop community. Everyone was expecting another Illmatic, but let's be real here; much like there will never be another Michael Jordan (sorry Kobe and LeBron fans), there will never be another Illmatic. It is now 2011, and we have yet to see another rap album that had the kind of impact that Nas' debut did.
Despite some of the criticism It Was Written has received, it is still generally viewed as Nas' second-best work, although some are partial to Stillmatic. Thanks to Illmatic, it has become essentially impossible for Nas to appease the masses, as even his most hardcore fans will usually find fault with each and every song he does because those tracks don't sound like "The World Is Yours." It's stupid, too, because Nas' body of work is undeniably great (save a couple of hiccups here and there).
Nas' content on It Was Written was also drastically different than it was on Illmatic, as Nas adopted the concept of mafioso rap on his sophomore project, following in the footsteps of good friend and frequent collaborator AZ, whose debut album Doe or Die personified mafioso rap to the fullest extent.
The more I look into it, the more I realize that 1996 really was a fantastic year for hip-hop, possibly even better than 1994, the year most consider to be the greatest (largely due to Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die).
1. The Message
This was always one of the more popular songs off of the album, as listeners were hypnotized by Trackmasters' somber beat which contained various samples and booming kicks. Nas' subject matter is fairly typical of 90s mafioso rap, and while "The Message" isn't exactly his finest lyrical moment, he manages to keep you interested. The production is damn good, too.
2. Street Dreams
Trackmasters' beat seems boring when it first starts, but it grows on you as the song progresses. "Street Dreams" is somewhat similar in content to AZ's "Sugar Hill," as it is Nas essentially saying how he wants to live lavishly. Not one of my favorite cuts on It Was Written, but it isn't bad.
3. I Gave You Power
This is the lone DJ Premier beat on the album, and I've gotta say, this does not sound like a typical Premo production. That said, I can picture Guru going in on this, so maybe it does? Anyway, this is damn good, as Nas easily rides the dark beat and kills it, dropping three great verses and an infectious hook.
4. Watch Dem Niggas
"Watch Dem Niggas" features a great, chill beat from Trackmasters as Nas warns his listeners about looking out for potential snakes in your crew. Foxy Brown's presence on the hook was kind of unnecessary, but overall, this is a really good cut.
5. Take It In Blood
The second best song on the album, in my opinion (you'll see why later). Live Squad, the most obscure producer on the entire project, drops a crazy, soulful beat for Nas, who absolutely rips it: "Individual, lyrical math abrasion, psychic evaluation, the foulest nation, we livin' in, dangerous lives, mad leak and battered wives, a lifestyle where bad streets is patternized." The overall feel of this track is just incredible, making it easily one of the best songs Nas has ever done. This is one of my favorite Nas records, period.
6. Nas Is Coming
There was a lot of hype for this one, as it featured a collaboration between Nas and Dr. Dre while that whole east coast/west coast feud was still boiling. That said, this was too much ado about nothing, because this track is horrendous. Dre's beat is just terrible, and the song is unnecessarily long at five minutes and forty-one seconds. I say "unnecessarily" because the actual rapping doesn't start until a minute in, and the final minute-and-a-half of the cut is full of adlibs and nothing more. The worst song on It Was Written; bar none.
7. Affirmative Action
The short-lived group The Firm (a group consisting of Nas, AZ, Cormega [who, due to internal beef with the rest of the collective, was quickly replaced by Nature], and Foxy Brown) formed on this cut, and they (except for Foxy Brown, who is just horrible) all do a nice job over this middle-eastern-twanged Trackmasters beat. I don't really have much else to say about "Affirmative Action" other than the fact that I enjoyed it.
8. The Set Up
The first of two Havoc productions on the album. This one is the lesser of the two, but it still bangs. Havoc also guest raps, dropping an incredibly long hook that pretty much sounds like a verse. Even though it was just a hook, Havoc's griminess made this cut that much better. Nas also sounds fantastic on this. Great, great song all-around.
9. Black Girl Lost
I didn't really care for this cut, which is basically Nas reprimanding a girl for her, um, reprimandable behavior over a cheesy beat co-produced by L.E.S. and Trackmasters. This isn't as bad as "Nas Is Coming," but it still isn't all that good.
Without looking at the liner notes, you would think Havoc produced this banger, but he didn't; L.E.S. did, making up for the dud that was "Black Girl Lost." The beat here is nothing short of sick, possessing an eerie quality that certainly sounds like it could have been on Mobb Deep's The Infamous. Nas obliges, shredding the instrumental to pieces with two appropriately dark verses.
This track has always reminded me of "Fu-Gee-La," and that's a good thing, as that is the one track from The Fugees that I actually like. The production by Trackmasters is phenomenal, and Nas sounds extremely comfortable over it, dropping two sick, long verses which would lead into...
12. Live Nigga Rap
...this. "Live Nigga Rap" is the other Havoc beat on It Was Written, and it knocks beyond belief. Both Mobb Deep members, Prodigy and Havoc, drop verses, and I don't think I need to tell you whose verse I like better. Well, in case I do, I think Havoc just tore this up: "We got it locked beyond measure, the clique's under pressure, extort you for your treasure, smack you with the undresser, represent your clique, go ahead, get that ass whipped, floatin' in the river with your body wrapped in plastic." It seems that Havoc's performance even forced Nas to step is game up, as he spits what I think is his best verse on the album. This is the best track on the project.
13. If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)
This was the album's first single, and it still receives some airplay today. I didn't like this when I first heard it, but it eventually grew on me. The Trackmasters beat is very smooth, and Nas sounds very good over it. However, Lauryn Hill just sounds out of place on the hook, and her inclusion on this cut really takes something away from it.
Regardless of what the critics have to say, It Was Written is a bonafide classic. Outside of a couple of meh tracks, the album is consistently good from top-to-bottom, featuring very good production and a more than adequate performance on the mic from Nas. He may not have been at the level he was on Illmatic, but, honestly, why does everything Nas does always have to strike up an Illmatic discussion? Damnit; I'm even doing it.
The overall feel of this album encompasses the subgenre of mafioso rap: dark beats, dark rhymes, and a confident emcee behind the mic. Nas is able to one-up his buddy AZ, dropping an album that I think was clearly better than Doe or Die, as good as Doe or Die was. Yes; the subject matter may become repetitive after a while, but isn't that the case on most albums anyway?
There is a large faction that says Nas does not exactly have a good ear for beats, and while that may be a valid criticism for his past couple of albums, you simply cannot use that argument when judging the early part of Nas' career. The beats on Illmatic were tremendous, and It Was Written possessed equally solid production all the way through, even without Pete Rock and Large Professor.
As I stated earlier, some feel that Stillmatic is Nas' second greatest work, but I think that title belongs to It Was Written, and I don't even think it's that close. Stillmatic was good, but it was not nearly as consistent as Nas' sophomore release.
TOP FIVE TRACKS
1. Live Nigga Rap
2. Take It In Blood
5. The Set Up
Nas Is Coming