IT WAS WRITTEN BETTER THAN ILLMATIC?
Illmatic birthed the legend. But it was It Was Written birthed the star. After Nas dropped arguably the greatest debut in hip-hop history, the big question was what would he do next. As official as Illmatic was, another New York native from Brooklyn also dropped a classic debut the same year that would later become the East Coast blueprint for platinum success. Illmatic was a timeless classic, but loomed in the shadows of the towering impact that would be Biggie Smalls' Ready To Die album. Nas originally intended for his second album to be entirely produced by the Queensbridge legend, Marley Marl. Once those plans fell through, he ended up linking up with the Trackmasters. They would be Nas' Puffy & the Hitmen, providing Nas with polished, mainstream instrumentals for him to unleash his poetic lyrics upon. In doing so, Nas transitioned from raw lyricist to polished artist. It Was Written was definitely not critically received as well by the masses as Illmatic, but I'm here to lay the case for why It Was Written was just as important, if not more, as Illmatic.(as sacrilegious as that might sound).
Illmatic gave us a young, hungry Nas. A Nas that had so much to say the vocabulary effortlessly spilled onto every grimy New York beat supplied by possibly the greatest ensemble of producers on a hip-hop album. As crazy as that album was lyrically, it failed to connect with people who were not hardcore hip-hop fans. Nas had to take note at the success of Biggie, who had a more straightforward approach to lyricism. It Was Written saw Nas spit with a more refined technique and cadence. Nas seemed to have a razor-like focus in coming for the crown that had been bestowed upon Biggie with his debut. The lyricism was prevalent throughout the LP but more controlled and with more style. The flow was more sharpened, more precise. Song structure took more precedence where Illmatic was more organic and broke rules. As a result, it made Nas' complex lyricism more accessible. It Was Written proved Nas was just as formidable as a music artist as he was a lyricist.
While Illmatic's sound was infused in the traditional boom bap East coast sound, It Was Written's production took a more universal approach. Due in large part to The Trackmasters, It Was Written featured Nas rapping over the type of commercial instrumentals that would garner more radio spins and allow him to get his voice out to a more diverse audience. It Was Written showcased a more balanced sound that blended the hard, grimy New York sound beautifully with radio friendly, dare I say, R&B-ish type melodies. In that sense, Ready To Die was a direct influence. But Nas took more risks incorporating a West Coast influence with "Nas is Coming" and "Street Dreams" (using the same sample as 2pac's "All Eyez On Me"). In fact, Nas was the first East Coast artist to work with Dr. Dre, a slept on fact of It Was Written. Production from Havoc, DJ Premier, L.E.S., and Live Squad still fed the New York streets with the introspective, Donald Goines, poignant lyricism that you came to expect from Nas. This is how It Was Written succeeded where Illmatic failed, which is producing a hit record. Nas was able to elevate from underground phenomenon to MTV/radio star with "If I Ruled The World" and "Street Dreams" (as well as the remix with R.Kelly). Illmatic made an attempt to get radio spins with "It Ain't Hard To Tell", which unfortunately came out the same time as SWV's single, "Right Here", using the same Michael Jackson "Human Nature" sample.
Nas would later brag about how his first album had no famous guest appearances. However, It Was Written featured a slew of guests that all brought their A game to enhance what I consider to be Nas' second classic. It Was Written was the album that continued to establish his alliance with Mobb Deep (which featured a Prodigy verse originally intended for CNN's "LA, LA" response to The Dogg Pound). Havoc supplied the grimy beats to "The Set Up" and "Live Nigga Rap", which both sounded like they could have fit perfectly on their Hell On Earth album. A young Mobb Deep dragging us through the harsh terrains of the Queensbridge projects with their brand of "tough guy" rap and dun language. Let us not forget, this was when Prodigy was in his prime and arguably a top 5 rapper. It Was Written also introduced us to The Firm. And while the Firm did not pan out to be the rap supergroup we thought they would, "Affirmative Action" turned out to be a classic collaboration. AZ, Cormega, and up and comer, Foxy Brown, laced a competitive posse cut that still has folks arguing who had the best verse in 2015. And then, there was Lauryn Hill who lended her beautiful vocals over Nas' biggest hit record, "If I Ruled The World". Nas proved he could hold his own with the cream of the crop the 90's had to offer.
The mafioso/coke rap subgenre was the trend in the mid 90's and provided us with countless classics. You had AZ's Doe or Die, Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx, Junior Mafia's Conspiracy, Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, Kool G. Rap's 4,5,6, etc. All had roots in a style that took off with Biggie's Ready To Die. It Was Written turned out to be one of the most influential albums within that sub genre. Nas took flack from hip-hop purists that felt Nas was more Martin Scorsese than Donald Goines. However, it was that style that allowed Nas to paint vivid street tales with a cinematic precision. Firmly establishing Nas as one of the greatest storytellers of his era, Nas continued to improve as an artist on It Was Written with conceptual gems like "I Gave You Power", which was a concept Pac would take a stab at on his Makaveli album, and the lyrical masterpiece "The Message".
Illmatic is an undeniable classic. But let us not forget how great It Was Written was and is to this day. No album in the 90's, other than Big Pun's Capital Punishment, Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt and Hard Knock Life, and Biggie's Ready To Die and Life After Death, blended the street sound with the commercial sound better than It Was Written. A solid contribution to the mafioso rap sub genre of hip-hop that included classic collaborations and a reinvigorated Nas with one of the illest, sharpest flows he has ever displayed in his career. It Was Written was important on many levels. It helped pave the way for East Coast dominance in the rap game that would become so prevalent in the mid to late 90's when the West Coast had taken over rap. People forget Nas was one of the few East Coast rappers to see multi-platinum success at the time with the West Coast gripping stranglehold over the minds of hip-hop fans. In addition, a lot of people discovered the brilliance of Illmatic off the strength of It Was Written. It Was Written was so good that it made people go back and listen to Illmatic, an album that otherwise would probably not be as highly recognized and appreciated without the success of It Was Written. It Was Written WAS the album that gave Nas his fanbase and helped to establish Nas as one of the best rappers the game has ever seen. Nas was able to successfully dodge the sophomore jinx. It Was Written has also aged well and I, personally, consider the album to be a classic. These are my thoughts. Thus, it was written......