Last month, ScHoolboy Q told Complex that Nas' It Was Written is a better album than Illmatic. Whoa! What?! This is heresy! Blasphemy! Was he kidding?
Illmatic is the hip-hop bible. The greatest rap album ever recorded. The gold standard. Heads can recite every single verse in their sleep, and even cursory rap fans know that it’s the Holy Grail. Illmatic is the pinnacle of hip-hop; it gets no better. It Was Written? A famous instance of a rapper compromising the art for commercial reasons. A bid for pop radio appeal that succeeded sales-wise, but was, as Insanul Ahmed noted yesterday in our Most Anticipated Albums of 2014 list, "ultimately disappointing." Everyone knows this, right?
Wrong. For all the ways the bible changed the world—all the various sects of the Christian church, all the religious fanaticism, all the crusades and missionary movements—you’ve read more gripping books, haven’t you? It Was Written is one of those books. Storylines, concept songs, new characters. It had chart-topping singles and gritty street joints side by side. Nas kept it thug over squeaky-clean Trackmasters beats and even threw a couple jabs at Jay Z in the process. Not only had he updated his style, he'd improved upon it. Time heals all backpacker wounds, and the past 18 years have revealed one essential truth about Nas’ discography: It Was Written is better than Illmatic.
Marley Marl lived far away from Nas, and the two had trouble getting into the studio together as often as they would have liked, so the idea of making an album together fizzled. Which is a good thing.
They say that limits make you creative. Too many options offer too much freedom, allowing for laziness and sloppiness. Illmatic had laid bare the boom-bap landscape, and Nas had covered every inch. Beats from DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock—he'd mastered them all, he'd conquered that arena. He needed a new challenge, a new adventure. His first choice to produce his second album was the legendary Juice Crew founder Marley Marl; Nas remembered the impact that Marley’s seminal work with L.L. Cool J had on him. But while they were both originally from Queens, Marley Marl lived far away from Nas, and the two had trouble getting into the studio together as often as they would have liked, so the idea of making an album together fizzled.
Which is a good thing. Another album built around classic hip-hop styles, an Illmatic 2, in theory, would have been boring. Give fans too much of exactly what they want and you cease to be an artist. You become something more like a soda jerk.
Steve Stoute knew that Nas was destined for big things. He was so inspired by Illmatic that he drove straight to Queens in his Lexus. When he pulled up to the projects asking questions, Nas’ brother Jungle pulled a gun on him. But once he'd found him, Stoute told Nas of the vision he had. Nas liked what he heard. Stoute began to manage Nas—adding him to a stable of artists that included a rising pair of producers, Poke and Tone, known as The Trackmasters. They had gotten their start doing beats for the likes of Chubb Rock, Kool G Rap and Roxanne Shante, but by 1996 they had started to crossover with production for Mary J. Blige and Soul For Real. Stoute saw an opportunity to put Nas’ gritty tales over the more polished, melodic beats The Trackmasters specialized in, and thus It Was Written was born.
When Nas was coming up, he hung with Tragedy Khadafi and Cormega, and he picked up his style from '80s stalwarts like Rakim and G Rap. (Tragedy had coined the term “Illmatic” six years before Nas’ debut.) When Illmatic dropped, that context was obvious to people that were aware. Nas wasn’t able to transcend the East Coast at the time because he was still attached to those homegrown sounds of traditional boom-bap, drum breaks and monotone Rakim flows, so Illmatic didn’t sell like everyone in that bubble thought it would. Once The Commissioner leaned on him for a more commercial appeal, It Was Written allowed Nas to become a worldwide star.
The first song, “The Message,” immediately let people know that this wasn’t like the previous album. Soft Flamenco guitar leads the track (Sting's "Shape of My Heart"), suggesting a more worldly and musically ambitious sound than any on Illmatic, before the drums drop and Nas kicks the door in: “Fake thug, no love, you get the slug/CB4 Gusto, your luck low/I didn’t know 'til I was drunk though.” The internal rhyme technique, heavy on syllables, had remained the same (or gotten better, even). But Nas has changed his subject matter in an attempt to grab the attention of listeners. Instead of dice games and project hallways, it was Tony Montana and Lexus coupes.
This was Nas stepping outside of his own experiences (“This nigga never sold aspirin, how he Escobar?” his rivals would later gripe) and into the role of Escobar, a mafioso gangster to match the personas that Jay Z and Raekwon and Ghostface were popularizing at the time. Whereas Illmatic presented Nas as a street poet, writing about what he saw from his project window, the subject matter for It Was Written took a more imaginative turn. Instead of hitting the block in Queensbridge, he was chilling in a villa with Mumia. He wasn’t betting on the lotto anymore. He wanted to send every prisoner in Attica to Africa.
These rhymes, slicked back and refined, mirrored Nas' real-life ambitions. Jewels, money, riches, bitches, cars, and clothes became the accouterments of a don. No longer was he the tape-jacking boombox fiend on the block. He aspired to step up in society, to reach a higher tier. If you don’t have something, act like you already do. That’s what Steve Stoute was all about. But it wasn’t only image; Nas' genius was in incorporating that mindset into his music. Trackmasters cleaned up the production with a velvet cloth (while making sure to get one DJ Premier track, avoiding the "sellout" label). It was a balancing act—one foot in the hood, one in the mainstream. Not a sellout, a progression.
Rather than chafing at the new sonic wardrobe Stoute and the Trackmasters had chosen for him, Nas embraced the change, using his new boundaries as a source of creativity instead of frustration. The search for that sweet-spot between street and radio began a career-long journey that's allowed him to remain as relevant as he does today. Otherwise he might've really have become Kool G Rap, well-respected in small camps but not even close to a global icon.
Where Illmatic was pared down and straight to the point, It Was Written was cinematic, embellished with skits, hooks and concept songs. There are elements of singing, such as on “Black Girl Lost” and “Street Dreams” (which Nas sings himself!) and of course, Lauryn Hill on the smash single "If I Ruled the World." Nas freed up his flow on his second album, too, developing a new rhythmic cadence distinct from the patterns of rap forefathers he'd duct-taped together for Illmatic.
Nas' style was rawer on Illmatic. But by his second album, he’d become a more well-rounded MC.
There’s a delicious, if perhaps apocryphal rumor that Nas was unable to spit on It Was Written like he did on his debut because he'd smoked so much weed that his lungs couldn’t handle the speedy delivery. It sounds like an urban myth, yet it speaks to the noticeable change in cadence from the first album to the second. “Real” hip-hop heads (you know, the insufferable ones) bemoan the alteration. But on his second album, Nas mastered the use of space. A rap song is about more than just issuing lyrics—it takes the right balance of interaction between beat, voice, delivery, timbre, melody, and rhythm to craft the complete package. Nas' style was rawer on Illmatic. But by his second album, he’d become a more well-rounded MC.
By allowing Trackmasters and Stoute to help guide his sound, Nas was able to operate in a riskier sphere, and the gamble paid off.
It took Illmatic two years to sell 500,000 copies; it didn't break the million mark til 2001. It Was Written sold twice that its first two months out, and remains the bestselling album of Nas' career, with a total topping 4 million.
If Illmatic is the rap bible, It Was Written is the New Testament: a crisp take on a classic style that departs from what’s already been done to accomplish a new standard that still affects rap today.
Written by Max Weinstein. Max is a writer living in New York City. You can find him on Twitter at @dubmaxx.