It Was Written vs. Illmatic


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.


Classic Albums

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.

It Was Written vs Illmatic

Rob Radio hosts his radio show, “Psych Word Radio Show” on 88.7fm in Connecticut.  He can be contacted on twitter @Rob_Radio

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  1. Nas’ illmatic did not sneak up on those of us in NYC at the time. He used Cormega’s flow for that album and many of the verses on that album had been already out on other Nas tracks for years before the 94 release.

    With Stillmatic, he knew he couldn’t keep that legendary flow and rhyme scheme and simpled it down to appeal to a more mainstream audience. He got better production, cleaner beat quality, more mainstream appeal, better quality videos, more promotion. None of that makes it better. As someone who learned every line to every song on both albums at the time they were released I can say line for line, illmatic is leagues ahead.

  2. I’m one of the biggest Nas fans ever and you’re wrong, it’s that simple. I’ll magic was perfect with not on e bad song, beat or verse. It all was down together flawlessly. It Was Written waa flawed and you didn’t mention the bad songs, or mediocre ones which by itself makes it not better than the album that dropped that same year….Reasonable Doubt.

    1. Okay… Let’s mention the mediocre songs on Illmatic…. “One Time for your Mind”… literally sounds like goddamn demo on what’s called a *”super producer project”* that has barely 4 dope beats…
      …On the other hand I can’t think of a single beat I disliked on “It Was Written”,
      So, *Production is better*
      –Okay! Let’s move on to Lyricism, There are 4 dope lyrical tracks on Illmatic, “N.Y State Of Mind”, “Memory Lane”, “Represent”, “Life’s a B__” the rest can easily be out-rapped by newer rapper like Joey Badass, and them other underground cats! On It Was Written, even songs like “Watch Dem N___” (which you wouldn’t expect would be lyrical) are still better lyrically!
      So, *Lyricism is better*
      –Next On,The debate on commercialization! It only has two commercial sounding songs, one that still manages to hold up and is a lot better than “One Time 4 your Mind”, the other is “Nas is Coming” which would’ve been better than “One Time 4 your Mind” if the Hook wasn’t so damn corny! But it’s still on the same level as it. ……..And Now we come to Trackmasters, go listen to the stuff they did with other rappers at the time and then come back to Nas. Tell me If it’s the same type of beats, The beats they did fit Nas’s style considerably, despite not having the New York Sound! I never guessed that the production changed when I heard tracks like “The Message” & “Affirmative Action”
      Next on, It’s not the real Nas…, Where do I even start with one? The Nas that ran like a cheetah with thought of an Assassin, and shot up buildings on Illmatic is the real Nas? That stuff wasn’t him to begin with… like Jay Z said, He ain’t live it he witnessed it from his folk’s pad, he was never like that to begin with. Here’s the difference that people can’t digest Nas on Illmatic is low-level thug, and on It Was Written he’s a Mafiaso gang member. The poet in Nas is still there, he’s still the same morally conflicted dude. The thing that shows on It Was Written was that he had a plan to get rich, while on Illmatic he decided that he will find a plan to get rich! And the transition of persona’ really works!
      And Also…, you mention Reasonable Doubt, don’t forget “Ain’t No N..” which is a lot more commercial than “Watch Dem N__” and “Nas is Coming”

  3. This entire article and not one mention of Take it in Blood… I’m glad you wrote this article. I feel a lot of the same ways as you do but you didn’t touch on possibly the best conceptual song on the album along with The Message. Nas is such an inspiration to me now as he was then. There was just something about the way “It Was Written” hit me, more so than any of his other albums. I feel like it meant more to him too. Someone should ask him…

    1. I agree 100%. Take it in Blood is probably my favorite from either album maybe even my favorite NaS song ever. That beat is a Molotov cocktail and his flow ignites it.

  4. To even have to answer or admit this even after reading this well written and informed article I still have to say Illmatic was better outside of the brainwash paradox

  5. Slow down son… I’m a head that lived through the these LP’S, days and times. There is no question that “Illmatic” was the better LP to assert differently is Ludacris. As a total LP at the time having only 10 songs on it was unheard of. Mind you every single one of those 10 tracks was a glimpse into the life of this observant kid from QBC. “It Was Written” was a strong attempt at not falling victim of the sophomore jinx, but the major difference was in production. At the time Biggie had swapped out his East Coast sound for more West Coast sounding production and was successful in doing so. NAS followed suit as he had “King of New York” beef with Big (amoung other reasons… “kicked in the door waving the 44”). Nas was also publically challenged by Snoop Dogg who wanted both of their sophomore LP’S to drop on the same day so that Snoop could prove to the world that he would out sell the so-called king of New York. This all lead to Nas moving away from the East Coast sound that made him famous. The reality was that this time the production didn’t resonate with East Coast heads like Biggies west coast styled offering. Heads were looking for that Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Extra Paul, Q-tip production that ruled the airwaves at the time and in truth this shift towards West Coast styled production IS still in effect to this day. This shift created a rift in Hip Hop itself and sent East COAST heads looking to Raekwons purple tape for the East Coast type of production that “It was Written” lacked. The reality is 10 immaculate tracks wins over a 20 track offering with some bangers and filler, especially when the LP is played through from beginning to end. On another note… No disrespect to the God Nasir or 2pac, but the best and I believe the first MC to Personify himself in as a weapon in a similar manner to “I gave you power” or “Me and my Girlfriend” was Pharoah Monche of Organized Konfusion on the song “Stray Bullet”. Nobody gives Pharoah Monche the credit he deserves as a lyricist, he’s constantly overlooked as are many other MC’S in favor of the so-called “top 5”. Nas tried to beat the West Coast at their own game and lost with his sophomore effort. Illmatic is a classic as it truly was a glimpse of Queensbridge captured in a time capsule for the world’s listening pleasure, just like Snoops “Doggystyle” was for life in the LBC.

  6. “Crisper beats” what does that even mean. We can say more commercial because Trackmasterz were on it. Illmatic had an all star cast of producers, Hip-Hop’s elite, every song was practically a single. This wasn’t true for It Was Written. The fact that he had developed a mafioso persona isn’t so relevant since anything a rapper puts out is a persona. They do sound decades a part. That’s a good point. I don’t think it’s brainwashing to put Illmatic at the top, they represented different times in Hip-Hop. In ’94 non commercial Hip-Hop was still making commercial numbers. This wasn’t the case in ’96. It is a business and Nas had to become marketable and relevant once again.

  7. Both albums are classics to me. I don’t recall feeling any dissapointment when I got It Was Written but for me dusty beats crispy, raw beats polished and no Foxy Brown beats any Foxy Brown.

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