It Was Written vs. Illmatic
It Was Written was a better album than Illmatic. There, I said it. Now that I have your attention from what some would regard as a blasphemous statement, let’s talk about classic albums and legacies. A classic album is one that is regarded amongst the greatest in the hip-hop genre. In order to have a classic album, as an artist, you would likely have to be regarded as one of the greats.
There isn’t much argument in the hip-hop community when it comes to naming the cliché top 4-5 classic albums in hip-hop history (Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Ready to Die, etc.) It would be hard to argue that these albums were not incredible pieces of art, and a guide to those learning the history of hip-hop. However, I feel that most people name these albums right away because it has been brainwashed in their minds to do so.
The problem with discussing classic albums and comparing them to an artists other albums, is that it’s impossible to explain how an album actually impacted the culture at the time of its release. Unless you actually lived through it. It’s like when people try to compare Michael Jordan to Jerry West; you can’t do it, and trying to do so would be disrespectful to both. They played in two completely different eras of basketball. Point taken.
I was speaking with hip-hop author Alfred Obiesie on my radio show a few months back, and he said that if a person cannot name a classic album that was released in the last decade, then his opinion is not worth hearing. That person is an ‘old head’ and has not been able to grow and accept the newer forms of hip-hop. Therefore, sometimes you have to detach yourself from what a specific album meant to you at the time, and sit back and listen to the album as a product.
Back to this Nas conversation. Without any doubt, Nas is one of the greatest lyricists to touch the microphone. He is on most hip-hop top 10 lists, on many top 5 lists, and regarded as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) by some. As the sophomore jinx loomed over a young Nasir, he began to craft a new sound, and a new persona for the ever changing landscape of hip-hop.
Within the two years after ‘Illmatic’ was released, hip-hop music had a much crisper sound, with sharper beats and stiffer competition coming out of not only the east coast, but the west coast too. When comparing the two albums, it sounds like they were made in different decades. Where ‘Illmatic’ was spoken from the viewpoint that Nas had developed through living in the Queensbridge Housing Projects, ‘It Was Written’ was much more than that.
It Was Written
The cover art for ‘Illmatic’ showed a toddler version of Nasir; whereas ‘It Was Written’ showed a grown, more mature Nasir. A Nas that has experienced things well beyond the map of Queens. “The Message” was the opening musical track off of ‘It Was Written’, it had a beat that was so crisp it popped! The intricate rhyme schemes that he displayed were a step up from anything he had put down on ‘Illmatic’. On “The Message” he rapped,
“Fake thug no love, you get the slug, CB4 gusto, ya luck though, I didn’t know til I was drunk though”,
apparent shots at West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur. He also raps,
“there’s one life, one love, so there can only be one king”,
apparent shots at East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls.
“I Gave You Power” was Nas rhyming from the mindset of a gun. He rapped,
“how you like me now, I go blaw, it’s the shit that moves crowds making every ghetto foul, I may have took ya first child, scarred ya life crippled ya style, I gave you power, I mad you buck wild”.
Although he was not reinventing the wheel here in terms of rhyming from the mindset of something other than himself, this was the best display I had ever seen an artist do so.
I Gave You Power
“Affirmative Action” is a track that has been quoted more than most Nas songs, and was the launching pad for the now defunct ‘Firm’ project/group. While AZ may have spit one of the most memorable openings to a song, it was the unknown Foxy Brown that stole the show with her drug equation that didn’t quite add up. “Suspect” felt like it would have been a standout track on ‘Illmatic’. “Nas is Coming” was the first of many collaborations between himself and West Coast producer/rapper Dr. Dre. Finally, ‘If I Ruled the World’ featuring Lauryn Hill was the perfect crossover song to launch his sophomore album.
If I Ruled The World
It Was Written > Illmatic
In closing, the reason that sneak attacks work best is because you have the element of surprise on your side. If no one sees you coming you have a distinct advantage on your prey or competition. With ‘Illmatic’ he snuck up on the world and changed a culture. With ‘It Was Written’, no matter what he did, he would not have met the expectations set out by the hip-hop community. So, while ‘It Was Written’ did not have the cultural impact that ‘Illmatic’ did, it was sharper, more lyrical, had crisper instrumentals and better features.
The biggest argument that comes up with hip-hop purists is that ‘It Was Written’ was the mafiaso persona that Nas attempted to develop, not the true Nasir. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your favorite rapper (whomever he is) is attempting to sell you some sort of persona that is not completely his. One could argue that Raekwon’s ‘Only Built for Cuban Linx’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’ had this same type of concept for their debut albums. Both of which have been acclaimed by both critics and hip-hop fans alike. With the weight of the world and expectations on Nas’ shoulders, he decided to do something that had rarely been seen: make a successful concept album. Guess what, mission accomplished.