Album: It Was Written
Rating: 8 / 10
Nasir Jones’ debut “Illmatic” could be argued to be both a curse and a blessing for him. An amazing album by all rights, it’s classic status is assured in the annals of hip-hop. However, every album Nas has released ever since has come under incredible scrutiny as a result, almost as though it was expected that every album he dropped would become a classic as well. As a result, “It Was Written” was afforded a lukewarm reception when it dropped almost 10 years ago; it probably didn’t help matters much that the Source decided to review it in the same issue as Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” and gave the latter the higher score. Ever since, the album has been somewhat of a contentious point for many fans; some felt that Nas sold out completely, others pointed out that this was merely a stage in the artist’s development.
Nas certainly was developing as an artist; gone is the kid from Queens, quietly transcribing events from the PJ’s into very personal street poetry, or just kicking raps for the fun of it. “It Was Written” introduces us to Nas Escobar, a flossier, more gangstafied character than his predecessor. It seemed like the age old story: underground rapper gets a taste of money and starts compromising “art” to cater to the label’s wishes. Whether the label’s fault or his own decision, Nasty Nas has been MIA ever since.
On the surface, one of the first things to notice about the album is that the sound is much different from “Illmatic”. The production team was almost entirely different on this album; only DJ Premier and L.E.S. show up again, but turn in only 1 and 2 tracks respectively. The rest of the album mainly has TrackMasters to thank for a very glossy, commercial sound (even the L.E.S. tracks are credited as “for TrackMasters Entertainment”) light years away from the more grimy, personal sound prevalent on “Illmatic”. A flossier album demanded flossier production, apparently. TrackMasters have been heavily criticised for the job they did on this album (among other things), but in all fairness, although nowhere near the production seen on the previous album, most of their beats are quite listenable, and their production on this venture is certainly steps ahead of successive work they would do. ‘The Message’, ‘Suspect’, ‘Shootouts’, and ‘If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)’ all have excellent beats that still sound fresh today.
Content-wise, Nas has shed the innocence that many argue made his first album so accessible. The majority of the album fits his Escobar persona perfectly, as most of the topics revolve around the staples of drugs, money, and status. Peep these lines from ‘Street Dreams’:
My man put me up for a share, one fourth of a square
Headed for Delaware, with one change of gear
Nothing on my mind but the dime sack we blazed
With the glaze in my eye, that we find when we crave
Dollars and cents, a fugitive with two attempts
Jakes had no trace of the face, now they drew a print
Though I’m innocent until proven guilty
I’m gonna try to get filthy, purchase a club
And start up a realty for real g
I’ma fulfill my dream, if I conceal my scheme
Then precisely I’ll build my cream
The first tip without the clique, sent the bitch
With the quarter brick, this is it
Fresh face, NY plate, got a crooked eye for them jakes
I want it all, armorall Benz with endless papes
For god’s sakes what a nigga got to do to
Make a half million without the FBI catchin’ feelin.
What many critics look over, however, is that although the content of the rhymes has definitely changed, the rhymes themselves stand up to the bar that “Illmatic” set. Lyrics have always been the most consistent aspect of Nas’ career, regardless of what topic he may be rapping about. And the content is not as stale as many make it out to be; we get a nice conceptual track with ‘I Gave You Power’, and ‘If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)’ is still one of the most personal songs Nas has ever written.
Nas has always said in interviews that “Illmatic” captured a moment in his life; even more than the all-star lineup on the album, the timing of the album in Nas’ life had a lot to do with how it turned out. With “It Was Written”, Nas has said many times that it would have been impossible to recreate the moment of time that “Illmatic” encapsulated, and even if it were possible, he chose not to because he felt obliged to move forward as an artist, as opposed to remaining in that same moment forever. If people remove their rose-tinted “Illmatic” spectacles and view “It Was Written” objectively (ie. as an album in its own right, not a sequel to its predecessor), we are not exactly left with a classic, but still a solid release by any reckoning.