How can one of the greatest hip-hop records be followed by one of the rappers with his face on lyrical Mount Rushmore? It follows with Nas and the 1996 release It Was Written which is a step away from the overwhelmingly grimy New York background and instead adopts for a more polished, but still, ski-masked faced release.
While the lyricism and production of Illmatic still remain one of the strongest debut releases from an artist in any genre, It Was Written was a more successful break into a more mainstream audience. After a lengthy introduction which features a classical styled instrumental over some boom-bap percussion, Nas’s voice is like a breath of fresh air even 20 plus years later. As he moves through the crowded city with gold chains seemingly leading his way, It Was Written becomes a combination of his unrelenting rhyme ability and flair which became a staple for Queensbridge.
Nas is able to peel the curtain back on his style and personal life with bars that describe, “Where the snakes put a smile on they face, hoping and praying I’m stuck. Scoping, they lay in the cut, weighing my luck. Player haters play this in cell blocks and rocked stages winking at some female cops with cocked gauges.” When he is able to then recruit Foxy Brown for the hook, this smooth female voice is empowering and orchestrates a different side to the already buttery production. “Watch dem niggas that be close to you and make sure they do what they supposed to do. Cause you know they be thinking ‘bout smoking you, never personal, nowadays it’s the ways.” Before ending the record, Nas continually makes allusion to his origins and keeps a pistol close for protection which is disguised here as different producers and beat makers.
One of the bigger standouts for It Was Written comes from Dr. Dre’s featured hand on the track “Nas Is Coming” which continues to catch the beat even well after the record ends. With a chorus that is simplistic but effective, the continuous use of “Nas is coming, Nas is coming” which repeats for what seems like a majority of the track. His similes and metaphors here especially are deliberately destructive, “In the black limo, Jack Daniels through the cracked window. I spot the fake, red dot his face like a Hindu. Snatched the symbol, tied his hands to make examples.” It is a piece of work that ages well which joins some of the better tracks of the 90’s rap era.
While it may not capture the same ears as Illmatic, it is undeniably a strong progression that Nas saw in his career. From taking the sales numbers or the way that he could encapsulate an audience with lyrics still being used year later, It Was Written tells more about the era of hip-hop than anything about Nas personally.
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