It Was Written is the second studio album by American rapper Nas, released July 2, 1996 on Columbia Records in the United States. Following the moderate sales success of his acclaimed debut album, Illmatic (1994), Nas chose to focus his efforts in a more mainstream direction. Primarily produced by Trackmasters, it is a departure for him from the raw, underground tone of his debut album towards a more polished, mainstream sound. The album features mafioso and gangsta themes, and marks the first appearance of Nas’s short-lived supergroup The Firm, which included rappers Foxy Brown, AZ, and Cormega.
The album proved to be Nas’s most commercially successful release, debuting at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart and selling 3 million copies worldwide. It also heralded Nas’s mainstream popularity and followed the success of other mafioso rap albums such as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995) and Reasonable Doubt (1996). However, his stylistic changes and increased mainstream success fostered accusations of selling out within the hip hop community. It Was Written also received mixed criticism for not being on-par with Illmatic, serving as an example of the sophomore slump.
Following its initial mixed reaction, It Was Written’s standing improved considerably, and it has been viewed by music writers as one of Nas’s best work. It has also been credited for helping usher in the mafioso rap subgenre, and it has had a considerable amount of influence on hip hop artists. Similar to Illmatic’s critical comparison to his following work, It Was Written has remained as Nas’s best-selling release. On September 6, 1996, the album was certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Music and style
In contrast to Illmatic, the album contains a more detailed and elaborate production, while it shares similarity to the G-funk sound, relying heavily on sampled and looped funk grooves.It Was Written has Nas experimenting with a theatrical mafioso concept under the alias of “Nas Escobar” (inspired by the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar). The album’s subject matter has been noted for its focus on materialistic excess and other mafioso lyrical themes. Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote of Nas’s shift in lyrical themes from Illmatic, stating he “repeatedly cites the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and drops brand names of clothes, cars, liquor and guns.” Nas also references lines from his previous material, a common element in his music that has been analyzed by one music writer as “return[ing] to his professional beginnings in those references.”
The album opens with “Album Intro” in which a slave rebellion is heard, and it contains samples of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964) and The Lost Generation’s “The Sly, the Slick, and the Wicked” (1970). ( sample (help·info)) The opening song “The Message” features production by the Trackmasters, Poke & Tone, and scratching from Kid Capri. One critic described the song as a “bloody narrative”, and cited it as “one of the most visually evocative songs of Nas’ career”. The song’s title references the classic hip hop single “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Legendary producer DJ Premier had one production credit on the jazz fusion-styled “I Gave You Power”, a song which depicts a first-person narrative from the perspective of a gun. The song is accompanied by falling piano notes and stuttering drums.
The album contains the singles “If I Ruled the World”, which features guest vocals from Lauryn Hill, and “Street Dreams”. Music critic J.R. Reynolds wrote that the former has Nas “rapping his way to anarchy in an imagined world where he kicks discipline to the curb and good times rule.” In the song, he states that he would “open every cell in Attica/send them to Africa”. The latter is an account on the impact of drugs in Nas’s neighborhood. The song contains smooth bass lines and frail drums, and it features an interpolation of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (1983). The album also features guest appearances from Mobb Deep and The Firm, a supergroup which was initially composed of Nas, AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown. The group makes an appearance on the song “Affirmative Action”, a tale of robbery and three characters with mob connections. Brett Berliner of Stylus Magazine described the song’s beat as “extremely mafioso, sounding straight out of Goodfellas, with strings and crescendos”, while he cited the song as “one of the best posse tracks of all time.”
Mobb Deep’s Havoc produced two tracks for the album, “The Set Up”, a story about revenge, and “Live Nigga Rap”, a freestyle performed by Nas and Mobb Deep with hard, gloomy percussion. “Black Girl Lost” is a sympathetic account on the struggle of African-American women. It features vocals by R&B singer Joel “Jo-Jo” Hailey of Jodeci. Music critic Krisex wrote of Nas’s lyricism, stating “The L.E.S.-produced song woos heavy rotation while the MC makes the type of passionate perusals that leave lyrical aficionadeos genuflecting at his mike stand.” The song’s title comes from the book of the same name by pulp writer Donald Goines; his literary work has served as a popular source of reference for many gangsta rap artists. “Nas Is Coming” is a collaboration between Nas and West Coast rapper Dr. Dre. One writer cited it as “more of a gangsta, mainstream tune than anything Nas has ever recorded.” The song’s opening conversation, a skit, is a discussion between Nas and Dr. Dre about hip hop artists and fans over-concerned with the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, and that the two are producing a song that does not revolve around or contribute to the beef.
It Was Written was released July 2, 1996 in the United States, Canada and Europe on Columbia Records, while featuring distribution in the United Kingdom on Simply Vinyl Records as a double vinyl LP.It Was Written proved to be Nas’s most commercially successful album to date, selling 268,000 copies at the time of its chart debut. It peaked at number one on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, remaining on the latter chart at number one for four consecutive weeks, in the top 20 for eleven weeks, and a total of thirty-four weeks in the top 200.
The album’s first single “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” peaked at number 15 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, number 17 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart and number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The second single “Street Dreams” hit number one on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart, as well as number one on the Hot Rap Singles chart, while it peaked at number 18 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. A remix version of “Street Dreams” was released on November 26, 1996 featuring production by Poke & Tone and guest vocals from R&B singer R. Kelly. On September 6, 1996, It Was Written was certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), for shipments of two million copies in the United States. On January 8, 1997, “Street Dreams” was certified gold in sales by the RIAA for shipments of 500,000 copies.
Upon its release, It Was Written received mixed to positive reviews from most music critics, who found it not on-par with Nas’s debut album, serving as an example of the sophomore jinx. Its release also followed the commercial success of other mafioso-themed rap albums with similar subject matter, including Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995), Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt (1996) and AZ’s Doe or Die (1995). Music writers criticized its mainstream, R&B and pop-leaning sound, as well as the enlistment of a top production unit and popular guest artists. The album’s lyrics and themes were also poorly received and heavily dismissed as an attempt by Nas to follow the popularity of gangsta and mafioso rap.Rolling Stone’s Mark Coleman wrote negatively of Nas’s themes and called it “the latest blatant example of trashy tough-guy talk”, writing “Certainly he strikes a note of creepy realism in his stories of heavyweight dealing and literally cutthroat competition. ‘The Set Up’, ‘Shootouts’ and ‘Affirmative Action’ […] are chilling in their how-many-grams-to-a-kilo detail and utter amorality. On ‘Watch Dem Niggas’, Nas cites as inspirations both the boxing coach Cus D’Amato and the murderous drug lord Pablo Escobar. What is this guy thinking?”. Jon Pareles of The New York Times commented that he “continually shifts perspective” and called it “late-stage gangsta rap, starting to buckle under its own contradictions.”The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave the album a “neither” () rating, indicating “may impress once or twice with consistent craft or an arresting track or two. Then it won’t.”
The Source was more favorable of Nas’s lyrics, calling the album an “audio anthology of ghetto stories told by one of hip-hop’s most prolific writers.”Vibe magazine’s Krisex criticized the album’s “consistently aggressive attempts at pop music”, but also wrote that Nas “shines through”. Despite calling the album “adequate” and commending Nas for his lyricism and flow, Krisex concluded that It was Written “isn’t nearly as satisfying as his first one.”NME wrote that “Nas’ neat, considered lyrics treat the violence that surrounds him with a mixture of remorse, resignation and ebullience.”Christopher John Farley of Time stated “The lyrics in It Was Written could be sharper, but the music, energetic and engaging on many tracks, helps drive his message home.”Q magazine called Nas’s performance “angry, lean and full of drive.” Both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times were favorable of the album’s sound and gave the album 3½ out of 4 stars.Los Angeles Times writer Cheo Coker called the album “poetic”, writing that it “demonstrates a continuing lyrical maturity that makes his already potent beats and rhymes all the more compelling”.Spin magazine preferred the “reach” of It Was Written to Nas’s “more suavely rapped debut”, praised the production, and described the songs’ choruses as “grainy, pop-savvy”.
The album was ranked number 41 in NME’s critics’ poll of 1996, and Jim Farber of the New York Daily News named it the sixth best album of 1996. German-based magazine Spex ranked it number four on its “End of Year” list, while the UK-based magazine The Face named it the twenty-fourth best album of 1996. “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” was ranked number 29 on NME’s Singles of the Year list, and number 20 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1997.
In spite of being critically maligned upon its release, the album’s standing has improved considerably over time, leading to it being viewed as one of Nas’s best albums, while remaining to be his best-selling release to date. By 2001, It Was Written had sold more than 2.13 million copies. Leo Stanley of Allmusic later praised Nas’s lyricism and ghetto-themed vignettes, along with the album’s detailed production. For Stylus Magazine’s On Second Thought publication, critic Brett Berliner re-examined the album, discussing its initial impact, and cited it as “one of the first hip-hop albums to straddle the critical and commercial divide successfully.” While comparing It Was Written to Illmatic, Berliner stated “It’s a seriously good album with a bit of filler, worth of almost all of the praise Illmatic got. This is Nas’ second classic, and should be considered one of the best albums of all time.”About.com later ranked “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” number 24 on its list of 50 Great Hip Hop Songs, while it also named the song the fourth best R&B/Rap Collaboration.
While later reviews of the album saw It Was Written in a different light than previous reviews had, the subject matter was still seen as a major flaw of the album. Music critics perceived Nas’ violent, fantastical mafioso stories as lacking the emotion and truthfulness of his debut album. Writer Joe Katz wrote in a review of the album for Sputnikmusic, stating “The lyrics were there, but some of the emotion was gone. Maybe it was the world around Nas changing, or maybe it was changing in himself, but no one can listen to this after Illmatic and not see a change … If Illmatic was the kind of nightmare you can’t wake up from and don’t really want too, then IWW is a regular dream, not quite “real” but enjoyable all the same.” While Illmatic is often held as Nas’s magnum opus, It Was Written was not only perceived by critics as part of a sophomore jinx, but was also the first of Nas’s subsequent work to be heavily judged and compared to the former. However, It Was Written has been noted as his commercial breakthrough by critics, as it boosted the rapper’s image in the mainstream and helped attract a much larger fan-base.
“Nas is Coming” began a brief collaboration between Nas and West Coast hip hop producer Dr. Dre. The alliance also resulted in the formation of The Firm, who make their debut on track number eight, “Affirmative Action”. The pairing of the East Coast rapper and the West Coast producer, during the period of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, brought criticism from both sides. More controversy ensued when, during the recording of The Firm’s album, Cormega was fired from the group by Nas’s manager, Steve Stoute, and replaced with a young rapper named Nature. Cormega recorded an underground single, “Fuck Nas and Nature”, which began a rivalry with Nas that persisted—with brief periods of reconciliation—to the end of 2005.
In addition, West Coast-based rapper Tupac Shakur took offense to the opening line of the song “The Message”, and in retaliation insulted Nas on a song titled “Against All Odds” from his posthumously-released album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996). In an interview for King magazine, Nas later confirmed that the song was intended as a diss towards The Notorious B.I.G., with the line “There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King.” Nas and Shakur eventually met and reconciled prior to the latter’s fatal shooting. As result of his death, Shakur did not have the opportunity to remove the insults to Nas in “Against All Odds” on The 7 Day Theory.
Hip hop artists
Rapper Lupe Fiasco has cited the album as his favorite hip hop album.
It Was Written has been credited, along with Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995), with helping usher in the era of the mafioso rap. According to writer Sam Chennault, while the hip hop subgenre would “run out of steam quickly, this release is a gem.” Chennault also discussed the significance of It Was Written during the period of its release, stating “after mastering stark street corner realism on Illmatic, Nas delivered a loose concept album that was, at the time, groundbreaking in its scope, approach and execution.” According to rapper Young Noble, a close friend of Tupac Shakur, the song “I Gave You Power” served as the main inspiration for Shakur’s “Me and My Girlfriend” (1996). American hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco has cited It Was Written as his favorite album and his primary source of inspiration. Fiasco has stated that he based his debut album Food & Liquor (2006) on the conceptual style and “moods” of It Was Written. When asked of his musical influences in an interview with AllHipHop.com, Fiasco stated “You know I really tried to go back and recreate [Nas’] It Was Written, you know what I’m saying like that? [I would play] It Was Written and then I would play my album, and it was like, ‘Do we got [this] record, do we got that record?’” When asked in an interview with NobodySmiling.com about why he is comfortable admitting the album as a source of inspiration, Fiasco stated:
Cause it’s a classic. Like, people study-you study the masters, you know what I’m saying? Everybody that’s rapping studied someone to learn how to rap. They had a rapper who was they favorite rapper that they wanted to be like and wanted to rap like, know what I’m saying? For me, I just look at it like I studied a master piece. I modeled my album after a master piece; and not song for song; not line for line; not beat for beat. It was more-for me it was like mood for mood. The way he set the mood on that album to me was just like incredible. And at the time in my life-like, I fell in love with ‘It Was Written’ when I was seventeen, eighteen-a very impressionable time-so I was like I love that album. That’s my favorite Hip Hop album, so it’s like why not base your album on ‘It Was Written’?
American reggae and hip hop artist Matisyahu regards It Was Written as one of his influences as well. He cites the introduction of It Was Written, in which slaves rebel against their owner, as having a major influence on him. According to The Washington Post, “Matisyahu, too, felt enslaved. By what? He didn’t know. Just felt the chains. The lyrics rocked him. The beat did, too.” Matisyahu stated that after listening to It Was Written, “I connected with hip-hop, the hardness of it, the driving beat. It’s music with space, that has gaps in every little thing that happens.”
Subsequent work by Nas
While It Was Written earned a more favorable reputation among critics since its initial mixed reception, Nas’s subsequent releases have continued to be weighed against his critically acclaimed Illmatic, despite all of them outselling his debut. Against this standard, they have often been critically deemed as mediocre follow-ups.It Was Written was the first of Nas’s albums to have been labeled as ‘selling out’ by fans of Illmatic, due to his crossover sensibilities and radio-friendly hits aimed at the pop charts. In addition, none of his following releases have been able to reach the sales success of It Was Written. The follow-up, I Am… (1999), fared almost as well as It Was Written, serving as Nas’s only other album to reach double platinum status. After the releases of I Am… and Nastradamus (1999), which underwent considerable editing due to bootlegging of the recording sessions, many fans and critics feared that his career was deteriorating. Despite the chart-topping success of I Am…, hip hop audiences were not ready for the more prophetic themes of Nastradamus, as it only sold 232,000 copies by its first week (less than half of I Am…’s first-week figures).
By 2001, Illmatic and It Was Written were both selling at a rate of over 3,000 copies a week, while Nastradamus was earning an average of little more than 2,000 copies a week, despite its relative newness. Both I Am… and Nastradamus received further criticism for their commercially-oriented sound. Reflecting this widespread perception in the hip hop community and adding to his ongoing feud with Nas at the time, Jay-Z mocked him in the song “Takeover” (2001) for assuming a “Pablo Escobar” persona and having a “one hot album [Illmatic] every ten year average”. Nas, however, made something of a comeback with his fifth album Stillmatic (2001) and the follow-up God’s Son (2002), which both sold in excess of 1 million copies. Afterwards, his subsequent albums tended to receive more positive reviews, including the platinum-sellingStreet’s Disciple (2004) and his untitled ninth album (2008). Nevertheless, It Was Written has remained as Nas’s best-selling album.
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