Listening to “It Was Written” twenty years later is a fascinating window to rap in '96.
It's the same Nas from Illmatic but now in order to gain commercial success in a world of thug rap he writes a concept album about Nas Escobar, a fictitious drug kingpin who is oddly bothered by slutty women.
The title at times eludes to a prophesy that Nas is destined for rap greatness, and sometimes about the fable of his alter ego. It's his best selling album, achieved by using commercial production to convert the praise from Illmatic into actual album sales. If you love 90's boom-bap and/or Nas you probably love this album. If you love poorly connected metaphors you probably also love this album. Nas is a great rapper, but intensely serious, so when he says insane things he sounds like a kid telling you a hilarious story who gets super mad that you keep laughing.
There was a lot of criticism of Nas for rapping about dealing drugs and violence without having lived that life. That's a moot point now in a post Rick Ross the Correctional Officer world, but in '96 when the East/West coast feud is about to claim Tupac and B.I.G. inside of a year, authenticity meant a lot.
My beef with Nas rapping about violence is that he says the most insane things without a sense of humor and it sounds corny as all hell. I don't have a ton of examples of this for you, but I do have the definitive one. On “I Gave You Power”, Nas personifies a gun on the street tired of being used for violence. It's an amazing concept, and parts of the song are meaningful and interesting. But then in the second verse he starts, “Always I'm in some shit / My abdomen is the clip, the barrel is my dick uncircumcised / Pull my skin back and cock me / I bust off when they unlock me.” What the hell Nas? It's not a leap for a man to describe his dick as a gun. It is bizarre to go so far into detail that you describe the uncircumcised foreskin as a trigger and how to operate it. As a bizarro joke, it's funny. But coming from Nas' generally humorless mouth it's ridiculous in a bad way. I cannot say enough times how stupid that lyric sounds.
On the other violent hand, “Shootout” is kind of a great gritty story. The first half details how they execute a troublesome cop who conveniently is well known for banging a girl in the projects. The details of the cop and how they react when the door gets kicked in and the lead starts flying is cinematic. He paints a clear picture in very few words and it's a great example of why Nas is considered to be one of the greats.
“If I Ruled The Word” was the first single from the record, and though it only made it to No. 53 on the Billboard charts, it was at that time his biggest success. It's got a hook with Lauryn Hill, and it's fun to sing along to, but it's sounds like a deviant teenagers dream world, not that of a conscious rapper. Legalizing weed and cruising the Bahamas are normal and acceptable wishes. Getting blown by every woman he meets is childish, but would be funny if he'd phrased it as a joke instead of apologizing for it, (“It sounds foul but every girl I meet'd go downtown”).
But then he explains that he wishes all the coke was pure, not because he wants to snort pure cocaine, or he wishes fiends weren't getting poisoned, but because everyone would be able to get rich selling it. I mean, Nas, if you ruled the world, why would you be hustling pure cocaine? You couldn't think of a better way to improve the financial situation of your subjects? You're platform sucks. He'd also like to get rid of undercover cops and condoms, which I get, but seems like trivial requests. Nas seems like the kind of guy who would find a genie's lamp in the desert and wish for a GLASS of water first.
Not to belabor the point but I can't sign off without talking about how “Black Girl Lost” is awkward. The entire song is about a very fine, and apparently very slutty woman. Nas is mad that she's sleeping with so many dudes, but it really sounds like he's only mad because he thinks she's so hot. “To see a prophecy, your ebony tone is lockin me /
The way you moan make me daydream of you on top of me / Wishin I could be the one man; but you juggle / Way too many Willies all in one hand” Again, it's be funny if Nas knew how to tell a joke, but instead it sounds like a text you read to a judge to get him to sign a restraining order. And he's supposed to be a drug kingpin, shouldn't he love thots? Or at least ignore them? No thug should be so bothered by fellatious ladies.
Every time I got really into a song on this album, something would jump out and ruin it for me. After realizing that this album was released just as the East Coast/West Coast beef was about to turn epically tragic I was listening to “Nas Is Coming” which intros with a dialogue between Nas and Dr. Dre talking about how the beef needs to be ended. I was in the middle of marveling at how important that was when they (sounds like Nas) start making the most fake weed smoking noises I've heard since I was in high school. Either it was actually fake, or someone was smoking a tiny joint with comic enthusiasm. With every impressive step forward this album lets out an awkward accidental fart. It's sound is quintessential '96, but that's not always a complement, and this is one of those times.
by Nathan Hankins (@nathanhmhankins)