If you want to talk about the most stacked year for hip hop albums, 1996 immediately comes to mind. A classic was coming out every few months, whether it was a debuting rapper making their mark or a seasoned spitter solidifying their legacy forever. Yet perhaps the most anticipated release of the year was from the kid that made a little album called Illmatic.
On July 2, 1996, Nas released his sophomore album, It Was Written, under Columbia Records. Coming off his lauded debut, it was vital that the Queensbridge emcee got his second album right. The hip hop community wouldn’t shut up about Illmatic – still to this day. The task was to match it up and have lightning strike twice. Easier said than done, of course.
To understand It Was Written, we must first set the scene. Gangsta rap was on the decline, Death Row and Bad Boy were dominating forces, and on the periphery was the assertion of alternative pioneers (OutKast, De La Soul). It was a transitional period when it came to creativity; anyone could push the margins to new widths if they were brave enough.
Enter Nas, now a New York superstar ready to take the next leap. Illmatic was critically-acclaimed, though it only peaked at number 12 on the charts and took two years to be certified Gold. Now managed by Steve Stoute, the ultimate mission became turning Nas into a commercial force. Also managed by Stoute were production duo Trackmasters (Poke & Tone), whom Stoute convinced Nas to grant dibs to produce a bulk of the album. Known for their knack with crossover records, there was belief that this team could bring Nas the sort of success that Large Professor, Pete Rock and DJ Premier couldn’t.
It was for these very tactics that the public were not receptive at first. Though most critics favoured the record, fans noticed a departure from the predecessor’s dusty, jazz production – enough to call Nas a sellout, going pop, or whatever equivalent phrase of the nature.
But commercially, the album prevailed. It Was Written debuted at number one, selling 268,000 copies first-week and remains Nas’ best-selling record to date. The first two singles not only charted fairly in the States, but made their marks worldwide, particularly across Europe.
In retrospect, the notion that It Was Written was a ‘sellout’ record was beyond a stretch. Only three of its fourteen tracks carry a crossover appeal, which all still maintain the lyrical dexterity and flair Nas became known for.
Twenty-five years later, it is common knowledge that Nas dropped back-to-back classics, and just like his debut impacted and influenced hip hop massively. From Nasty Nas to Nas Escobar, It Was Written took the Queensbridge block tales and expanded the landscape to represent a matured pro on top of the game; both the rap game and the crack game.
It Was Written was instrumental in pioneering mafioso rap, the tougher cousin of gangsta rap where the artist narrates the life of a head honcho. Organised crime and cartel fantasies were the soundtrack for this suave, polished branch that came across more articulate and sophisticated. Nas set this benchmark with It Was Written, a rapper only with a pen like his could unlock. The songs are trapped in the purgatory of Nas’ dynamics; the sound feels Hollywood, but the realities around him are still entrenched in street life. That is what It Was Written does so well, managing to find a faultless balance in the new and old, which is ultimately what brought Nas new fans while keeping the existing.
If Illmatic was like a film, It Was Written is more like a play, acting out scenes of gang violence, betrayal and retaliation, kingpin moves and environmental observations. Just like how Illmatic paints pictures of local Queensbridge life, It Was Written maps out the mobster mentalities in high definition. Which is why it can be said that Nas’ lyricism is on par or even better than on Illmatic.
The album opens up bravely with “The Message”, chest out ready for warfare. Its opening line cryptically refer to an opponent that widely believed to be directed at Tupac, who took it as such and responded on “Against All Odds” from The 7 Day Theory, before Nas eventually disclosed he was addressing fellow New Yorker, The Notorious B.I.G. (“Fake thug, no love, you get the slug, CB4 Gusto / Your luck low, I didn’t know ’til I was drunk though”). It is also the song that kickstarted the mutual differences between Nas and Jay-Z; the line “Lex with TV sets the minimum” poking fun at the fact Jay-Z was “still” driving a Lexus, while Nas had already upgraded to the next best whip. It seems like a petty comment to make, but there is a verve buried within that amplifies Nas’ arrogance. From minute one, there is an infectious sense of justified confidence, enough so that Nas felt to open up the album by little-bro’ing any peer who thought they could dare think of taking his position at the pinnacle.
Nas embodies the purpose of the album on “Street Dreams”, narrating tales of his drug-filled environment where drug money rules ambitions (“Growing up project-struck, looking for luck, dreaming / Scoping the large n****s beaming, check what I’m seeing / Cars, ghetto stars pushing ill Europeans”). Its release as a single signalled the transition of Nas who was now singing on his records, something he also resorts to on “Black Girl Lost”. It wasn’t deemed cool when Nas done it, but twenty five years later it is now the norm for rappers to sing their own hooks.
The album is home to one of the most celebrated metaphors the genre has seen. “I Gave You Power” is told from the perspective of a gun, personified to the point where it realises the wicked acts it is responsible for, stuck in the cycle of transferring owner to owner that destroys ethnic communities. Produced by DJ Premier, it remains one of Nas’ greatest tracks and one of the greatest storytelling songs in hip hop. The metaphor is laid out for the listener in the intro (“It’s like I’m a motherfucking gun”), a detail that the Trackmasters wanted to remove from the final cut to maintain the track’s ambiguity. But Nas doubted whether the listener would understand the metaphor, and opted to keep the spoiler.
At the peak of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, Nas dared to monumentally bridge the gap on It Was Written. West Coast’s Dr. Dre, who was openly an admirer of Nas, produced and featured on “Nas Is Coming”. Dre’s production and the hook mimics the vintage theme songs of superhero shows, with its sample responsible for adding that mafioso flair. “Nas Is Coming” was a watershed moment for the two coasts, putting all the beef aside and coming together to make timeless music.
Of course, the kingpin has to have his entourage. “Affirmative Action” uses the introduction of The Firm to let this be known. Consisting of AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown, The Firm project was not as successful as hoped – there were simply too many hands in the pie behind the scenes. However, they still conjured one of the greatest mafioso rap songs in “Affirmative Action”, with Foxy Brown’s math questioned to this day.
On “The Set Up”, Nas narrates an encounter of getting revenge on a rival who murdered one of his friends. Over an effective boom-bap beat by Mobb Deep’s Havoc, Nas does what he does best; submerging the listener in scenes like a fly-on-a-wall. You can visualise each verse playing out in live motion. “Shootouts” echoes similar impact, detailing the gun-down of a known cop in the community before engaging in another shootout for a petty gambling dispute.
Above all, It Was Written has the illustriously rare Lauryn Hill feature. Lead single and closing track “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” marked Hill’s first appearance outside of The Fugees, whom had just released their second album The Score a few months prior. Still a fresh face in music, Lauryn Hill’s appearance was simultaneously anticipated, and led to a magical crossover. “If I Ruled the World” is a humbling moment for the album after twelve tracks of hubristic raps. Its verses and hook take a turn to social commentary; using positions of power for greater good (“Give me one shot, I turn trife life to lavish / Political prisoners set free, stress free / No work release, purple M3’s and jet skis / Feel the wind breeze in West Indies”).
The only sore bump from the Hill and Nas crossover is that Nas was set to feature on Hill’s debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but Nas was unable to make it to the recording sessions. In 2016, Nas spoke about the missed opportunity by stating “That’s one of my greatest regrets with music”. Looking back on the record and its timeless status, it feels like a gaping hole that fans can only imagine what could have been like.
Over the years, the hip hop community’s staunch stance towards It Was Written has gradually dwindled. Long misunderstood, it is now rightly recognised as Nas’ second back-to-back classic where he elevated his career while maintaining his penmanship. It Was Written now comfortably sits high up as runner-up in Nas’ album rankings, becoming far from a one-album wonder that many claim he is when reflecting on his discography. Though if you ask Lupe Fiasco, Royce da 5’9″ or Schoolboy Q, It Was Written is a better album than Illmatic.
Its role in pioneering mafioso rap can only be challenged by Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Rarely will you find an album from this era that did not so effortlessly merge the commercial with the ground roots and maintain artistic authenticity.
If Trackmasters were to produce the entire album, history could have etched a different legacy. What It Was Written ensures it must do is balance the spaghetti-western sounds of “Affirmative Action” and “Nas Is Coming” with your traditional boom-bap flavours. Havoc, DJ Premier, Live Squad and L.E.S. have vital contributions that bring the ‘authentic’ Nas back to our ears.
To this day, the influence of It Was Written rings in hip hop. Would Pooh Shiesty and Lil Durk’s 2020-21 hit “Back in Blood” exist without “Take It in Blood”? Or the countless personification of a gun that have been laid since “I Gave You Power”? How ahead of the curve were Nas and Dr. Dre when it came to ensuring both coasts could co-exist and thrive simultaneously?
It broke the lingering sophomore curse that was weighing on Nas’ shoulders. No longer was he the shy Queensbridge kid on the block. His confident across the album was fully warranted, and listening back only solidifies just how exceptionally gifted Nasir Jones is.
Photography: Danny Clinch; T. Eric Monroe