Last Saturday marked the 26th anniversary of the release of It Was Written, and coincidentally, the album ends up being my next write up. Time is truly, Illmatic.
After delivering arguably the greatest hip-hop album of all-time with his 1994 undisputed classic debut album, Illmatic, Nas had way more pressure on his shoulders than the average rapper trying to resist the grips of the sophomore jinx. It had been over two years since the prolific street poet blessed the world with his masterpiece that would not only be highly acclaimed by the streets and major publications like The Source and Rolling Stone, but years later would become curriculum for classes taught at universities, including the prestigious, Harvard University. What does an artist do after their debut album is not only considered their own personal masterwork but the magnum opus of an entire genre? Well, Nas would respond with It Was Written.
Other than DJ Premier, who receives one production credit on IWW, Nas would abandon the legendary hip-hop producers (Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip (it’s a weak Tribe Degrees of Separation, but I’m going to use it)) that helped shape the sound of Illmatic, instead relying heavily on the production of the Trackmasters (Poke and Tone), who at the time had a knack for creating polished hip-hop records to bring artists commercial success. IWW receive mix reviews upon its release, while the streets were torn as well, with some calling Nas a sellout for his newfound radio-friendly sound and others would go the extreme opposite side of the spectrum, proclaiming IWW a greater work than Illmatic. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of IWW, it would go on to become Nas’ most commercially successful album (Thanks largely to the Lauryn Hill assisted lead single), receiving triple platinum certification in 2021.
IWW is one of three albums that soundtracked my summer of ’96. I haven’t listened to IWW in a few years, so allow me to break it down, chop it up and (semi-playfully) pull together all the reasons IWW caused Pac to spark beef and fire shots at Nas on The Don Killuminati’s infamous diss track, “Against All Odds.”
Album Intro – IWW opens with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” vibes, as Nas and his buddy travel back in time and play the role of fed-up African slaves on a plantation, ready to spark a revolt. Even with Nas’ horrible fake southern accent, this was and remains one of hip-hop’s most powerful album opening skits. The second half of the intro features Nas and AZ introducing the listener to the album and talking random gibberish (where Nas hi-lariously says “These niggas look faker than the new hundred-dollar, son” to which AZ responds with a cackle and co-signs with “They look like Monopoly money, right?) over a soothingly soulful instrumental.
The Message – Before Juice WRLD (God bless the dead) or Yung Bleu would sample Sting’s “Shape Of My Heart” to make hit records, the Trackmasters would loop it up for the first song on IWW. Nas uses the beautifully sorrowful backsplash to call out studio gangstas (“Fake thug, no love, you get the slug, CB4 Gusto, your luck low, I didn’t know ‘til I was drunk, though”…I’ve heard the theory that this line was aimed at Pac, and even though I’m not sure how accurate that claim is, for shits and giggles, we’ll call this line Exhibit A as evidence to why Pac started beefin’ with Nas), boast of his “ill sex adrenaline” (shout out to the beautiful Vanity (rip)), before using the song’s final verse to illustrate a confrontation that ends with our commentator getting shot in the leg (this is the line that Pac directly references in “Against All Odds” (“Talkin’ bout he left the hospital, took five like me”), so I’ll submit this as Exhibit B). Nas then concludes this great opening track by leaving us with a hood jewel: “A thug changes, and love changes, and best friends become strangers.” Keep living and you’ll soon find out all three of those statements are true.
Street Dreams – The Trackmasters build this instrumental around the same Linda Clifford sample that Johnny J (rip) used for the title track on Pac’s All Eyez On Me (I’ll submit this as Exhibit C to the Pac/Nas beef theory: Pac felt Nas stole his beat), as Nas raps about the road to becoming a successful drug dealer and remixes and embarrassingly, sings the hook from the Eurythmics’ classic record “Sweet Dreams” (Nas was so into his Escobar persona by this point that the video was a short clip parody of the classic mafia flick, Casino). This was the second single released from IWW, and even though I’ve never been crazy about this song, it’s still passable (the cassette/cd maxi-single included a mix with an alternate third verse that didn’t add to or subtract from the song). The Trackmasters would also remix the song with a plush and creamy instrumental that featured R. Kelly (am I allowed to say his name?) singing the hook and adlibs, while Nas gives the song a complete lyrical facelift, as he gets into his introspective-reflective bag. Even with Mr. Kelly’s recent thirty-year sentencing for his dirty deeds, I’m still willing to admit that I enjoyed the remix more than the original. The original mix ends with gunshots and melee to set up the next song…
I Gave You Power – Premo gets his lone production credit of the night, as he hooks up an emotional backdrop built around a burdened violin loop. Prem’s production sounds custom made for Nas’ storyline that finds him rapping from the perspective of an old and weary gun, exhausted from all of his owner’s evil deeds: “Always I’m in some shit, my abdomen is the clip, the barrel’s my dick, uncircumcised, pull my skin back and cock me, I bust off when they unlock me, results of what happens to niggas shocks me, I see niggas bleedin’, running from me in fear, stunningly tears, falls down the eyes of these so called tough guys, for years, I’ve been used in robberies, given niggas heart to follow me, placing people in graves, funerals made, cause I was sprayed.” During the final verse, the tired gun decides to “jam right in his owner’s hand” seeking the last laugh, but does he? If you’ve never heard this song before, go listen to it immediately, and if you’re already familiar with this song, go revisit this masterful work from one of the most prolific lyricists in the history of hip-hop. Easily, one of the greatest conceptual songs of all-time. While it’s a stretch, I’ll submit this as Exhibit D in the Pac/Nas beef: Pac may have felt that Nas stole this concept from his “Me And My Girlfriend” record, even though Nas’ record was released months before and superior to Pac’s.
Watch Dem Niggas – The Trackmasters build this instrumental around a Bob James/Earl Klugh loop (or interpolation) as Nas lets his stream of consciousness flow run wild right from the jump: “They never realize, how real Nas is so decisive, it’s just the likeness, of Israelites mist, that made me write this, a slight twist, of lime rhyme, be chasing down your prime time, food for thought or rather mind wine, the Don Juan, features the freak shit, my thesis, on how we creep quick, fuckin’ your wife, that aint no secret, its mandatory, see that pussy, they hand it to me, I got no game, it’s just some bitches understand my story.” On the song’s final verse, Nas serves up a cautionary hood tale on what not to do when conducting illegal business, and it makes sense of and ties in the Foxy Brown assisted hook. Catchy hook and great bars, all wrapped together with a dense and infectious Earl Klugh bass line. You gotta love it.
Take It In Blood – Live Squad (comprised of Stretch and his brother, Majesty), Top General Sounds and Lo Ground, concoct this hard shimmering backdrop that flips a clever Kool Keith bar on the hook. Nas consumes the fiery instrumental with ease, as he stays in his stream of consciousness bag and goes bananas over the course of the song’s three verses: “Currency is made to trust in a Messiah, I’m spending it to get higher, Earth, Wind & Fire, singing reasons why I’m, up early, trustworthy, is a nine that bust early, sunshine in my grill, I spill, Remi on imaginary graves, put my hat on my waves, Latter Day Saints say religious praise, I dolo, challenge any team or solo, you must be buggin’ out, new to my shit, home on a furlough.” This still sounds amazing; easily one of the best songs on IWW. This is also Exhibit E in the Pac/Nas beef: Stretch, who received a co-production credit on this track and was once Pac’s righthand man (he’s actually rapped alongside Pac on a few different songs, going back to “Crooked Ass Nigga” from 2pacalypse Now), was rumored to have set Pac up during the 1994 New York robbery attempt that left Pac with five gunshot wounds. The fact that Nas was now “mans” with the man Pac believed set him up, pissed him all the way off. Sadly, Stretch (whom Nas mentions during the final bars of this song) was murdered months before the release of IWW, on November 30, 1995, at the tender age of twenty-seven. May he continue to rest easy.
Silent Murder – If you bought IWW on cassette (like I originally did), this bonus track exists at the end of side 1(It was included on the 25th Anniversary Expanded edition of IWW as well). The Live Squad delivers again, this time drafting up a pretty production with Middle eastern vibes and an ill flute loop that Nas decapitates with his sharp verbal sword (I love the “smoke a nigga like a Hughes Brothers motion picture” line). This record was way too fire to be just a bonus track, but on the flip side, if you bought the cassette back in the day, you thought you were the shit when all the cd buyers were missing out on this precious hidden gem.
Nas Is Coming – This song marks the first time that Nas and Dr. Dre would join forces. The song starts with a minute long intro that features the two hip-hop Titans choppin’ it up (Dre sounds like he’s shittin’ the “gin and prune juice” that Nas rapped about on “Take It In Blood,” when he greets the QB emcee with a strained “What’s up, Nas?”) and simultaneously, smokin’ it up, as Nas brings his Chocolate Thai to the party, while Dre tokes on his Chronic. What was built up to be an epic collaboration gets progressively worst from there, as Dre constructs the music around a few cheesy Scooby Doo loops and Nas struggles to find his footing over the kooky synth instrumentation; and to add insult to injury, the repetitive corny hook sounds as annoying as fingertips scraping a chalkboard. This song is the audio equivalent of the Durant/Harden/Irving Brooklyn Nets team: it reads great on paper, but the results were super disappointing; and time hasn’t made this one sound much better. I’ll also submit this as Exhibit F in the Pac/Nas beef theory: Pac felt that Nas working with his former Death Row co-worker was his way off taking Dre’s side in Pac’s newfound feud with the good doctor (he calls Dre out by name on “Against All Odds” as well), who officially left the grips of Suge’s evil empire just over a month after All Eyez On Me was released.
Affirmative Action – This record gives us our first taste of The Firm: Nas Escobar, AZ aka Sosa, Foxy Brown and Cormega (who would fall out with Nas shortly after IWW was released and be replaced by Nature on the supergroup’s (I use that term loosely) 1997 group effort). The Trackmasters and Dave Atkinson cook up cinematic instrumentation that reeks of Mafia vibes (especially those ill live strings that I’m going to assume Mr. Atkinson is responsible for), as all four members go into full-fledge Mafioso mode on this one. Despite Foxy Brown’s questionable drug math (I have a sneaking suspicion that Smoothe Da Hustler wrote her verse. He’s on record for being one of her ghostwriters, and if you compare his second verse on “Hustler’s Theme” (off his debut album, Once Upon A Time In America) to Foxy’s math on this record, you’ll hear the similarities), this shit was super entertaining. Side note: On the B-side of the “Street Dreams” maxi-single, there’s an “Affirmative Action” remix with alternate verses from Foxy, AZ and Nas, rhyming over Marley Marl’s classic “The Symphony” beat. The threesome go into emcee mode, temporarily putting down their drug dealing personas, and sound great rhyming over the raw backdrop.
The Set Up – Nas recruits Sosa and two chicks from the hood, Venus (not Williams) and Vicious (these may or may not be their stripper names) to set up and kill a couple of his street rivals who murdered his homeboy. Havoc’s callous and minimalistic backdrop serves as the perfect accomplice for Nas and his crew’s devilish deeds (although his wordy hook is atrocious). It’s not a great record, but a decent to solid album joint.
Black Girl Lost – Decades before Nas would take the stance of staying “out of Black woman’s business lest you vested in it” (see “Brunch On Sundays” from King’s Disease II), he would reprimand young ladies for being too fast in these streets over this melodic L.E.S./Trackmasters produced instrumental. K-Ci (from Jodeci) co-signs Nas’ male chauvinism by singing the hook and adlibs. This one doesn’t sound as interesting to me as it did back in 1996, or maybe, like Nas, I just matured.
Suspect – L.E.S. gets his second and final production credit of the night, building this one around a simple but rough guitar loop. Nas’ first verse and the hook leads you to think this is going to be a record about a murder suspect, but the second and third verses quickly deviate into random thoughts and theories from our host, which I normally enjoy from Nas, but not so much on this song. It still makes for decent filler material, though.
Shootouts – Nas quickly starts to sound obsessed with guns and violence, as he uses yet another song to discuss shooting people. I enjoyed the Italian flavored vibes of the Kirk Goddy/Trackmasters backsplash, but my favorite emcee’s content is quickly starting to sound redundant.
Live Nigga Rap – Nas invites his QB bredrin, Mobb Deep, to join him on this one (Havoc also snags the production credit), as the three emcees each get off a verse and bypass a hook. Naturally, Nas murders his guests on this one, it’s just unfortunate that his homicide didn’t take place over a more interesting instrumental. I’ll submit this as Exhibit G and the final piece of evidence in the Pac/Nas beef: Pac was already beefin’ with Mobb Deep (he called them out by name on “Hit ‘Em Up” and again on “Against All Odds”), so for Nas to jump on a track with them, Pac felt he was choosing sides, hence firing the line “This little nigga named Nas think he live like me” on “Against All Odds.”
If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) – The lead single from IWW finds Nas, the Trackmasters (with a co-production credit going to Rashad Smith) and Lauryn Hill revisiting Kurtis Blow’s song of the same title. Nas completely annihilates this funky radio-friendly instrumental, as he paints the picture of a perfect world, through his eyes: “Imagine smokin’ weed in the streets without cops harassin’, imagine going to court with no trial, lifestyle cruiser blue behind my waters, no welfare supporters, more conscious of the way we raise our daughters.” L-Boogie then adds the cherry on top of this delectable crossover hit with her soulful vocals on the hook and adlibs. This is one of Nas’ biggest hits and it still sounds incredible today.
It’s not fair to compare It Was Written to Illmatic, as it would be nearly impossible for Nas to match the concisely flawless masterpiece that should receive strong consideration for being added as the eighth wonder of the world. On his second outing, Nas substitutes the dusty boom-bap used to shape the sonics of his debut album with polished commercial-ready instrumentals, as he introduces the world to his alter-ego, Nas Escobar, who jockeys for mic time with Nasty Nas throughout the album. Except for the average at best, “Street Dreams,” the first half of IWW is phenomenal. The production, while dressed in its crossover appealing exterior, manages to maintain its hardcore integrity, thus resonating with hardcore heads and casual music fans alike, while lyrically, Nas properly balances the street poetry we all came to know and love him for on Illmatic with his new flashier mafioso persona. It’s the second half of IWW where things get dicey. “Nas Is Coming” is the only full-fledge dud on the album, but most of the second half is plagued with mid-grade instrumentals and uninspired thug tales from our host, that quickly become redundant.
Even with its underwhelming second half, IWW is still a solid album and stronger than the best work from many of your favorite rappers. It’s just that, once you’ve tasted heaven, floating around in space just doesn’t sound that exciting anymore.