Jul 1, 2016

#FlashbackFriday: It Was Written (20th Anniversary) - @Nas; A Niles P. Joint

Comparing hip hop to movies is a time honored tradition.  I’ve done it before, I’m about to do it now, and I’ll more than likely do it later.  But since it's the 20th anniversary of It Was Written, the metaphor is certainly warranted.  To understand how Nas arrived here, think of him as a writer/director instead of an emcee.  After making an arthouse flick his first time out, he received universal acclaim but not necessarily the expected spoils financially, nor the awards.  So the second time around, he was tapped for a production with a bigger budget and wider release.  Make no mistake, Nas’ goal this time was to knock it out of the park and garner mass appeal & sales.  But selling out completely proved impossible, as old habits die hard and the album itself became triple-layered yet nonlinear.  

At its root, IWW is about progression from project dwelling poet to drug dealer chic.  The latter takes form in an increase in glossy production as Trackmasters had a hand in 8 of 14 beats on the album.  1996 was the heyday of Mafioso rap and Nas jumped in headfirst with wondrous results.  Street Dreams was his first blatantly commercial single.  An Annie Lennox interpolation in the hook conveyed the want for material things as a sign of wealth.  The video even inspired some ridicule for Nas’ pink suit, but the tone was set either way.  La Cosa Nostra vibes flowed on the posse cut Affirmative Action which was the birth of would-be supergroup The Firm, which then included Nas Escobar, AZ, Cormega, & Foxy Brown.  Boss talk over Mediterranean strings was the order of the day.  He even linked with Dr. Dre for the criminally underrated Nas Is Coming which happened at the time of much media hyperbole about East vs. West in hip hop.  

No matter how much he left Queensbridge in the physical, Queensbridge never fully left him.  This is how you get street tales from one of the best storytellers in hip hop.  Fellow QB dweller Havoc contributed his trademark menacing beatsmith skills on The Set Up along with hook vocals.  Nas puts you right in the action of the narrative, whether you want to be there or not.  Old friend L.E.S. once again hops behind the boards for Suspect, which is another edition in Nas’ library of hard boiled stories.  The hook warns potential snitches, which saw a recent rebirth in a recent era.  More Queensbridge brotherhood is abound in Live Nigga Rap as this time both halves of Mobb Deep arrive as reinforcements for a filthy track that’ll murder you with one of those mini bats they got at a Mets game.  It’s easily the rawest on the album, necessarily unpolished.  

Despite drug kingpin wishes and projects sensibilities, Nas still prevails with cerebral creativity.  On the Album Intro, he imagines a slave revolt over the string section from Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come.  Nothing is more ingenious than I Gave You Power, where Nas personifies a handgun.  No matter how many times I’ve heard it (a lot) it still captivates me like the first time.  Also, somehow I didn’t realize that DJ Premier produced it until the other day (SHAME!)  While it would be derided today by misguided Tumblr whiners accusing it of any transgression possible, Black Girl Lost actually has Nas looking out for young sisters that might be moving too fast down a bad path.  But the crown jewel of the album is If I Ruled The World.  Inspired by Kurtis Blow, Nas creates his own idea of a Black utopia on wax.  Of course this was made possible by a gorgeous hook & bridge by Fugees-era Lauryn Hill.  There couldn't be a more perfect ending.


More than likely, your first instinct will be to compare the sophomore album to the debut one.  Don’t.  They come from two entirely different places in Nas’ life and by playing the comparison game, you’ll undoubtedly miss a lot of the brilliance in It Was Written.  His first album was about life as it is.  This album was about ambition for better while realizing the perils of your past aren’t that far in your rearview.  Materialism might consume you for part of it but if you keep focused you can create your own reality.  This album has been praised by a number of hip hop luminaries as an influence.  This author even remembers shopping for Jordans at A&J’s in Neptune City while Take It In Blood played in the store.  The progression makes you want more for yourself, wherever you may be in life.  As an adult I can appreciate its scope more, especially when viewed singularly.  And 20 years later, hip hop is finally giving the props it deserves.

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