Review Summary: The golden child's sophomore effort remains an underrated testament to his unsurpassed lyrical ability.
The late 1980's and early 1990's were an unprecedented era of hip-hop brilliance, with the likes of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr, and a plethora of west coast heavyweights releasing momentous, genre defining records. Towards the end of 1993, avid listeners and critics alike speculated as to the direction of rap music, some suggesting a diminishing in quality, as an indication of consistent lack of originality or perhaps, the apex of boom bap had clearly been attained. Fortunately, these prophecies never saw fruition, as Nas' legendary Illmatic, finally seeing day light in 1994 after years of a young Nasir Jones expressing tedious writing tendencies, absolutely leveled the game. Nasty Nas was swiftly enthroned as hip hop king of the world in 1994. The Source, a once credible hip hop turn to for all information relevant to the genre, allocated 'five mics' to the debut, a spectacular achievement for any striving rap musician. While not as commercially successful as Biggies Ready To Die, released the same year, Illmatic had underground aficionados claiming Nas as possibly the greatest MC to ever grace the mic in a very short time span. And though Wu-Tang Clan unquestionably dominated the eardrums of all who cared to listen throughout the span of 1993-1995 with a release of commercially and critically successful collective and solo efforts, anyone who was anyone in the hip-hop world, in addition to fans, were hungry for Nas' next output. That said output would considerably alter the course of the young Queens Bridge rapper's career, for the better as some argue, and for the worse, as others do.
Upon first impression, It Was Written seems to be clearly underpinned by a musical direction dissimilar to that of Illmatic. The Trackmasters, known for their tight, pristine, and more often than not simple beat production, manage the majority of tracks, while old time friends of Nas L.E.S. and D.J. Premier contribute lightly in comparison. The emerging sound of It Was Written is one of at times simultaneously underwhelming, Black Girl Lost
, and hypnotizing,Take It In Blood
. This dynamic proves to be confusing throughout the duration of the album, but ultimately ceases to be an evident issue, due to highly catchy samples, infectious melodies(Affirmative Action
), and loops paired with elaborate lyricsm. The tough, street defining sound which characterized Illmatic is noticeably absent, which while quickly disheartening, is offset by the intended quality of the production which sees an excellent majority.
Thematically, the LP seeks an approach contradictorily different from Illmatic. Mafioso themes, undeniably influenced by the classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... album, a debut by Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan fame, floods all song conception. The 'Nas Escobar' persona, adopted from Nas' feature on Verbal Intercourse, a track contained on the aforementioned Raekwon debut, predominantly establishes itself on many tracks. Illmatic sought an impressionable message which condemned violence, for the most part, while It Was Written essentially glorifies it. Songs such as Shootouts
and The Message
declare not only the necessity of violence required in order to survive, but also the relative responsibility and implicit enjoyment involved. While Mafioso themes do not entirely take center stage and are even hypocritically criticized during specific moments, see If I Ruled The World
and I Gave You Power
, the style surprisingly works rather well when applied to the maintained crisp, flossy beats.
It is important to note that the cohesion of It Was Written and the progression between each song is clearly well crafted. While Illmatic emanates instrumentals not necessarily related to each other, reminiscent of a mix tape, Nas' second effort seems to be comprised of interlocking pieces. Transitions between each song seem to seamlessly blend into a recognized whole by the end of the album, and artistically, Nas seems relatively comfortable with the direction. Specific tracks however, such as Black Girl Lost
, could definitively be removed to improve cohesiveness thematically, lyrically, and quite frankly, qualitatively. Though organizationally small blunders arise in certain spots, It Was Written successfully progresses in a transitional manner.
The lyrical finesse Nas exhibits on It Was Written is often sadly overlooked, which is a shame, as the twisting of words presented is arguably unmatched on any preceding, or proceeding hip hop album in history. While this statement may appear to be a bit absurd on the surface, technicality wise, Nas' bars are so masterfully scribed it is obvious they are of poetic nature.
Yo the time is wastin, I use the mind elevation
Dime sack lacin, court pen pacin
Individual, lyrical math abrasion
Psychic evaluation, the foulest nation
We livin in, dangerous lives, mad leak and battered wives
A lifestyle where bad streets is patternized
Now how can I perfect this (uhh, what)
livin reckless, die for my necklace
Crime infected, drivin a Lexus with a death wish
Jettin, checkin my message on the speaker
Boppin to Mona Lisa brown reefer, ten G's, gun and my Visa
CD crankin, doin ninety on the Franklin-D-Roosevelt
No seat belt, drinkin and thinkin
My man caught a bad one son, niggaz is frightened
Secret indictments, adds on to one seekin enlightment
My Movado says seven, the God hour, that's if you follow
traditions started by the school not far from the Apollo
My fuck "Tommorrow" motto through the eyes of Pablo
Escobar the desperado - word to Cus D'Amato
One criticism that Nas has endured consistently for the duration of his career, is his knack of slowly but surely rapping off topic in regards to the supposed meaning of the song. This can most likely be derived from Nas' ability as an aesthetically prolific writer, though it can invariably hinder his ability to deliver a concrete message. This problem is surely not obviated on this record, as a perfect example is the last verse within the song Suspect
. Initially, the song is about a possible suspect to a murder scene Nas witnesses, yet by the last verse, no correlation between words and meaning exists.
It justifies, Nas Escobar's leavin shit mesmerized
Mega live, like the third world
Decipher my deceiver make him a believer
Spitting jim stars, words in my mic type receiver
Bond is my life so I live by my word
Never fraudulent Queensbridge don't make no herbs
Spread my name to deacons, politicians while they speakin
Rebel to America civilization caught you sleepin
These lyrics were undoubtedly carefully constructed and are verbally pleasing, yet they don't pertain to the acknowledged meaning of the song in any understandable way. Despite this qualm, Nas' uncanny writing skills, and more importantly, the ability to rap them, is unadulterated genius. And while Many skilled MC's make their presence known on the LP, including Cormega, Prodigy, Foxy Brown, and, AZ, Nas outshines them with ease. If one truly examines the lyrical approach on It Was Written, it is discernible that no one rapper in 1996 was equitable to the sheer skill showcased.
When subjectively analyzing It Was Written in terms of a pure, lyrical approach, it's a masterpiece. When subjectively analyzing It Was Written as a whole, it falls just short. While I won't criticize the Mafioso themes, as a handful of rappers utilized the concept during the era such as Biggie, Raekwon, AZ, and Jay-Z, Nas could have absolutely released another classic under the moniker of Nasty Nas, sticking to street struggle themes. It Was Written was obviously a step in a commercial direction, as the collaboration with Dr. Dre and abandonment of gritty production indicates, yet the successful singles Street Dreams
and If I Ruled The World
don't sacrifice musical or lyrical quality in any drastic manner. The legacy of It Was Written to most is defined by a sophomore slump, though I argue the opposite. People tend to chastise Nas for his adoption of a marketable strategy, and while violent drug induced concepts were seen as the final nail in the coffin of credible hip hop at the time by the underground, most notably by De La Soul, Nas was simply reacting to the changing musical landscape. Lyrically, he was incomparable (and arguably still is), and artistically, he matured. Of course, It Was Written does not rival Illmatic, but then again, most hip hop doesn't.