The Classic: "The Message"

Upon its release, It Was Written debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, yet it was received as a severe letdown by fans of Illmatic. It has since come to be regarded by many as Nas’ second-best album. When Nas enlisted the Trackmasters to produce, many fans posited that the rapper was bidding for a slicker, more mainstream sound. While “The Message” may have had a colder, more closed-in feel than anything on Illmatic, the storytelling is stunning: “Got my gat back, time to backtrack/I had the drop so how the fuck I get clapped/Black was in the Jeep, watching all these scenes speed by/It was a brown Datsun, and yo nobody in my hood got one.” The song showed that Nas could rap over mechanized beats without ever becoming a mechanized rapper.

The Stinker: "Black Girl Lost"

On the other hand, of course, It Was Written contained songs like “Black Girl Lost.” Nas could unpack the psychology of a teenage gangster better than anyone. He could evoke the inimitable stench of a project stairwell using only his words. What he couldn’t do was talk about women in any convincing fashion. To select one sample come-on: “To see a prophecy, your ebony tone is lockin’ me.” The Velveeta-thick R&B chorus and heavy-handed moralizing proved beyond a doubt that quality control had flown the coop on this one.

The Buried Treasure: "Shootouts"

“Shootouts” suggested that Nas’ best songs and his most popular songs would never again be aligned the way they were on Illmatic. There is Illmatic-level artistry in “Shootouts” yet it was the kind of B-list song that seemed to disappear within the folds of It Was Written. For a moment, the Trackmasters put aside their slick machinations in favor of a deep Al Green sample. Because Green and other Memphis samples were a trademark of RZA’s production style, “Shootouts” aligned itself with the still burgeoning Wu-Tang aesthetic. The character studies in “Shootouts” could be seen as an extension of the stories found on Raekwon's Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah's Iron Man.