Category Archives: NaS

NaS – It Was Written

NaS
It Was Written
July 2, 1996
Columbia RecordsSME
080/100
NaS It Was Written

1. Album Intro // 2. The Message // 3. Street Dreams // 4. I Gave You Power // 5. Watch Dem Niggaz (feat. Foxy Brown) // 6. Take It In Blood // 7. NaS Is Coming (feat. Dr. Dre) // 8. Affirmitive Action (feat. AZ, Foxy Brown & Cormega) // 9. The Set Up (feat. Havoc) // 10.  Black Girl Lost (feat. JoJo) // 11. Suspect // 12. Shootouts // 13. Live Nigga Rap  (feat. Mobb Deep) // 14. If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (feat. Lauryn Hill)

No hip-hop album has inspired the concept of the sophomore slump the way It Was Written has. There’s quite literally no hip-hop head who will claim that his debut album is merely alright while It Was Written is the shit. Basically hip-hop heads used to have a disregard for today’s album because it wasn’t another Illmatic, one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums ever. But, as usual, snobby opinions by over-analysing critics don’t seem to be much in line with what the man in the street thinks, because even today, seventeen years post its release, it’s still Nasir’s best-selling album out of his eleven solo releases.

Now that the smoke has cleared and people have finally gotten the fuck over the fact that NaS will not release another Illmatic ever  contemporary reviews have been becoming increasingly positive. Just compare the original ’96 review of this album with the december ’12 revisit, both on RapReviews.com and marvel at the attitude change, which is pretty representative for the view of the community as a whole on It Was Written, both then and now.

Back to ’96. It Was Written was bound to disappoint. Illmatic was a masterpiece and nobody bought it upon release, leading to both unreasonable expectations from those who did buy it, impossible to fulfill even if Nasir would’ve reused the Illmatic producers and lyrical themes, and also leading to NaS shifting his musical directions into something more (sigh) pop/commercial sending him on a collision course with his fanbase. Whether this change in sound was forced upon him by his money hungry label, instigated by a money hungry NaS or was NaS legitimately interested in trying some new sounds is unknown to me, here are the facts though: NaS switched his management from MC Serch, a well-known rap legend his his own right, as well as one of Illmatic‘s architects, to Steve Stoute, who managed Mary J. Blige at that time. Stoute and/or NaS chose not to invite over Illmatic producers Q-Tip, Large Professor and Pete Rock, but kept DJ Premier and L.E.S. around, presumably as to not completely let the existing fanbase go. To produce the rest of It Was Written they brought in the Trackmasters who had produced prior hits for Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige and Method Man and do half of the tracks, as well as fellow Queensbridge hip-hop artists Mobb Deep, both to spit guest verses and to produce. Also recent Death Row Records refugee and West-Coast legend Dr. Dre produces one track. NaS’ debut album had exactly one guest verse; AZ’s on Life’s a Bitch. His sophomore featured the priously mentioned Mobb Deep and AZ as well as Foxy Brown, Cormega and R&B singers JoJo and Lauryn Hill. Final difference noticeable without actually listening to the album: Illmatic had but nine songs whereas It Was Written has thirteen (not counting intros). Basically one can correctly guess how this album differs from its predecessor and how this negatively impacts its sound before pressing play, different beats and not all of ’em as good as the last time around, more guests and not all of ’em being able to keep up and more songs than the last time around, not all of ’em warrant inclusion.

Luckily most of these things don’t turn out as problematic as they could have.

Under the influence of Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… album, as well as those following, including Jay-Z and AZ NaS started to parttake in a subgenre of gangster rap called mafioso rap. No longer was he Nasty NaS, the street thug running from police, selling drugs, drinking 40 oz.’s, robbing foreigners and ripping their green cards. This time he was NaS Escobar (named after the Columbian cocain kingpin Pablo Escobar) a moniker that was meant to indicate he had moven up in the world of crime, no longer having to do dirt but having people to do this for him. In a sense this new, more sophisticated thuggery warranted the more expensive, glossy sounds the Trackmasters brought to the table.

The opening track the Message could certainly go toe-to-toe with anything off Illmatic what with its Sting-sampling Trackmasters instrumental, NaS’ rant about his supremacy over the rap game taking subliminal shots at Biggie and 2pac and DJ Kid Kapri’s scratched-in hook consisting of lines from N.Y. State of Mind and Halftime. It’s not only as good as his previous work but it also shows NaS to be quite malleable, being able to adapt to fresh new sounds. If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) has the Fugee’s Lauryn Hill re-singing the hook of Kurtis Blow’s song of the same title over a Trackmasters re-creation of an old Whodini beat while NaS describes his utopia of racial equity, equal distribution of wealth and freedom in general. It may be more radio friendly than anything off his debut, but it’s every bit as anthemic as It Ain’t Hard to Tell. With these songs NaS succesfully combined street crediblity with pop acessablity, something at which the pop mutations from Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1; such as (Always Be My) Sunshine and The City Is Mine failed at miserably. (From this point Jay would only get better at them while NaS, well… Nas wouldn’t.) The only single that is slightly embarassing is Street Dreams, and only because Nas decides to interpolate (horribly re-sing) the hook of the Eurythmics Sweet Dreams, otherwise it’s fine, if a bit unspectacular.

There’s also some really good street cuts to be found here. The DJ Premier production I Gave You Power is a narrative told from the point of view of a gun and it is one of NaS’ signature songs for a reason. The two Mobb Deep collabos The Set Up and Live Nigga Rap, the former featuring only Havoc, the latter Prodigy as well, are also well on point. The same goes for the posse cut Affirmitive Action, featuring the original the Firm line-up: NaS, Foxy, Mega and AZ, So far so good.

Unlike Illmatic though this disc has some pretty mediocre stuff too: Black Girl Lost featuring Jodeci’s JoJo throws some social commentary into an album that’s mostly all about our host’s crimes and money, but unlike If I Ruled the World this track is preachy as fuck and falls flat because of it. Leave that shit to Pac, yo. Watch Them Niggas samples Bob James’ the Sponge and has a beat a little too dreamy for a song all about vigilance and back spabbers. Suspects and Shootouts are also unmemorable. Most disappointing of all is the Dr. Dre produced NaS Is Coming, with its boring-ass beat and NaS sleepwalking over it. It’s a blatant attempt at fan crossover, but that shit only works if some chemistry is on display, which here it is most certainly not.

While nothing (except for maybe NaS Is Coming because of how underwhelmingly disappointing it is) will make you want to break It Was Written in half and slit your wrists with it the bad songs do show exactly why this isn’t considered to be on par with Illmatic. It’s not as focused as that album was, and on most of these tracks the man seems distanced from his lyrics and performance. On his debut he at least sounded like he had lived everything he rapped about for the entire duration of the album whereas here, only on the lesser tracks, it would seem he tells tales he himself has heard second hand and doesn’t care that much about. Still the good songs are really good and there are a couple of classics to be found on here. And although this can’t fuck with its predecessor, that’s alright, most album’s can’t hold a candle to that one. And although I mentioned it all the fucking time throughout this review (it’s part of reviewing this particular album) one is best to see them completely seperately, even if Nas or Columbia Records may have somewhat called this comparison upon him by lazily reprising Illmatic‘s album cover.

Best Tracks
The Message
I Gave You Power
Affirmitive Action
The Set Up
Live Nigga Rap

Recommendations
Pick this one up.


NaS – Illmatic

NaS
Illmatic
April 19, 1994
Columbia Records/ SME
095/100

Nas - Illmatic
1. The Genesis (feat. AZ) // 2. N.Y. State of Mind // 3. Life’s a Bitch (feat. AZ & Olu Dara) // 4. The World Is Yours (feat. Pete Rock) // 5. Halftime // 6. Memory Lane (Sittin’ in the Park) // 7. One Love (feat. Q-Tip) // 8. One Time for Your Mind // 9. Represent // 10. It Ain’t Hard to Tell

As an album of original songs to listen to all the way through without skipping this is about as close to perfection the hiphop will ever get. It consists of ten tracks overall with not a single blatant attempts at getting pop/R&B-airplay. The intro is pretty useless, but after that there’s nine songs worth of uncut dope. Off course some songs are better than others, but nothing fits the “shitty” or even the “mediocre” label. In fact, if you like your hiphop not fused with other genres, well produced, with acrobatic flows, meaningful lyrics and clever punchlines NaS’ Illmatic will make your jaw drop. Hiphop greats like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip produce some of that music that just isn’t made any more today. It would seem that these guys have plundered a vinyl store and subsequently sliced up a lot of music in order to create dusty, booming, ominous audio collages for NaS to showcase his perfect breath control, intricate wordplay, deft imagery, storytelling abilities and funny punchlines over, with NaS taking full advantage of the opportunity.

After the intro nearly derails the entire listening experience by putting you to sleep NaS wakes you the fuck up by yelling “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap, where fake niggaz don’t make it back.” after which he unleashes a nearly endless stream of punchlines over DJ Premier’s suspenseful percussive piano-based instrumental. Nearly everyone of them is a quotable and has been quoted since this album’s release in ’94. After that classic NaS mellows out with friend and future group mate AZ on the L.E.S. produced Life’s a Bitch to talk about the gathering of wealth and the moral issues that come with it. The song ends in a trumpet solo by NaS’ father and jazz musician Olu Dara.

The World Is Yours references Slick Rick’s Hey Young World and features the legendary Pete Rock, who also produced the soulful instrumental, on the hook, and pays homage to the film Scarface. NaS’ line “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me.” would later spark Nasir’s beef with Jay-Z, after the latter sampled it for his for the hook after his Dead Presidents track on his ’96 debut, which is all sorts of ironic since Halftime which follows The World is Yours samples Jaz-O’s 1989 single Hawaiian Sophie, on which the Jiggaman made one of his earliest appearances. Ah good times not only for rap lovers but pop-trivia enthusiasts as well…

Memory Lane has NaS reminiscing on his childhood over a fittingly nostalgic, organ-laced DJ Premier instrumental and One Love is a letter put in rhyme to an inprisoned friend about recent events in Nasir’s neighbourhood over a great xylophone-rocking Q-Tip beat. One Time For Your Mind is all about what NaS does in his spare time and Represent is another punchliner that was sampled in a Jigga song.

It Ain’t Hard to Tell is the last song, the most accessible and in my opinion the best one, what with it’s Human Nature sampling Large professor beat and NaS being half-man, half amazing.

Yep, NaS ran a home run here. Or a hole in one might be a better simile. Unfortunately NaS switched management after this album from MC Serch, who undoubtedly helped the rookie get some aid by all these hiphop heavyweights, to Steve Stoute who got NaS in touch with the Trackmasters for making some 80’s music sampling commercial blingy hiphop, and got hit in the head with a champagne bottle by Puff Diddy, off all people, after the man suddenly remembered  he was a Roman Catholic and wasn’t supposed to appear crucified in a hiphop video, and Stoute accidentally forgot to have that scene edited out of the Hate Me Now video before airing it, more on that in due time. For now suffice to say Illmatic is golden and all the NaS dickriding fanboy praise is actually justified.

Best track
NY State of Mind, Life’s a Bitch, The World Is Yours, One Love, It Ain’t Hard to Tell

Recommedations
Buy this album.