Thursday, July 2, 2009

It Was Written > Illmatic

This is one of my favorite barber shop arguments.

Well I guess it’s more like I disagree with the broadly accepted opinion that Illmatic is better then It Was Written- and then everyone yells at me. Yeah that’s more like it.

I always get into trouble with this sort of thing- it's right up there with Ether or Takeover (Ether), Jordan or Kobe (Kobe), Superman vs Flash in a race around the world (I got $20 on Barry Allen) Lola Love or Buffy (I’ll take Toccarra thanks). Who has time for a haircut when serious intellectual pursuits like these are going down?

Illmatic hit store shelves in April of 1994. Nas was heralded as the boy genius mic wizard and heir apparent to Rakim Allah. I listened to the album twice the day it was released and I was dumbfounded- this was unlike any rap album I had heard before.

I wasn’t up on Kool G Rap at the time- outside of his verse on the “Symphony”, and by then I had already determined that Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were the best rappers forever and ever Amen. However, after hearing Nas’ Illmatic- if Rakim was Jordan, then NAS had just crossed him up AI style.

Ten songs, one feature, all NY swag, but you probably didn’t care. At least the poor sales reflected that people didn’t care. The Chronic and Doggystyle came out in 1992 and 1993 respectively, and they were selling millions of records with their ultra-gangster, almost blaxploitation like themes and lyrics. In the midst of that, Nas put out a cd that went largely unnoticed, in terms of sales, outside of NY or rap nerd circles.

People just weren’t gonna break bread to buy that cd at the time it was released. Illmatic reminds me of jazz in the sense that, people currently love it, study it and respect it, but they didn’t get it right away. I’m not one to assign value to something by recognizing how many people buy it, but it is interesting that it was called a classic for so long and just creaked over platinum in 2001 per the RIAA. And it certainly is a classic album, above reproach; however, when you weigh it against Nas’ sophomore effort it comes up short in some respects, my opinion.

“It Was Wriiten” was released in 1996 on the heels of two epic rap albums, that for my money, were the catalyst for most rap music of the mid-90’s forward- and Reasonable Doubt is not one of them. Only Built for Cuban Linx Niggas (1995) and Ready to Die (1994) initiated a lot of imitation and made a whole lot of rappers rethink what they were doing, and one of them was Nas.

Raekwon’s “Only Built for Cuban Linx…” is an incredible cd that ushered in a whole new gangster/Mafioso aesthetic that became very lucrative for rappers to emulate and at one point threatened to squeeze out anything that wasn’t like it. Rae and Ghost spoke on everything from dyeing kicks, to selling and sniffing dope in a way that (unfortunately) made it sound cool.

They created a whole new lexicon from existing street slang and contorted 5% mathematics- that made you feel like an insider once you deciphered it. And it was all raw; no flashy production or popular r&b singer guest appearances just straight-up rap.

Biggie, on the other hand, was more of a hybrid. He had the gangster tough talk and the harder raps that won him “street cred”, but he could also get the ladies (“Big Poppa, “Juicy”) and the club going. Biggie was one of a few rappers that could rap on a club/pop beat with a singer and still kill it like he just spit over a vintage Premier track. “Ready To Die”, like “Only Built…”, was a classic album with a crime-related theme, but he really personalized a lot of the tales and made you feel something versus listening to a guy talk about shooting all the guns and selling all the drugs.

The album is almost autobiographical in the sense that he‘s birthed in the “Intro” has a hard time coming up trying to get paid “Gimme the Loot” experiences a measure of success “Juicy” and then dies “Suicidal Tendencies.” In my opinion he took the best parts of the albums in this piece and refined them for sale, without losing the edge or making it seem phony.

He garnered critical acclaim comparable to his NY peers, but far outpaced them commercially with his take on the so called gangster style.

After soaking in all this Nas comes out with “It Was Written” and sold over 2 million records. So in 4 points I will tell you why It Was Written is > Illmatic.

(Yes I could have did that paragraphs ago, so what!)

1. Beats – the production on It was Written was handled primarily by Track Masters (never heard a popular 80s song they wouldn’t sample into a hit) These guys were running neck and neck with Puff and the Hitmen in the 90’s for crafting the most hollow, unimaginative beats possible, but it ended up being the hallmark of more popular/commercially viable rap music from that time. Those beats ruled the clubs and the radio for roughly a decade

The production on Illmatic sounded perfect for the themes involved, and the time it was released, but it was pretty boring.

2. Singles – “If I Ruled the World” and “Street Dreams” killed everything that summer and the oft-done Times Square video was just as rote as ever- Perfect.

Everyone has a favorite track from Illmatic, but I can’t ever remember hearing any of its “singles” outside of my bedroom.

3. Entertainment – Illmatic is very heavy and the beats don’t do anything to lighten the load. It Was Written is a better listen as far as the way it’s arranged, the beats are a little more lively, and stories about drugs, guns, murder and loose women are always fun.

4. Relevance – It Was Written was in on the ground floor for the whole gangster rap/mafia thing and certainly gave a lot to the genre. Not so much with its originality because the 2 cds that pre-date it had laid that groundwork already, but Nas’ stellar lyrical ability applied to the existing formula is what changed the DNA a bit. Much like Biggie, he took the hard rap stuff and threw in the party/radio stuff (to a lesser degree); whereas, Rae disregarded deliberate radio songs for the most part.

Ultimately It Was Written is better because it’s still in rap’s DNA. You could argue that Joe Buddens is Illmatic from a lyric standpoint, but the stuff in his rap DNA that makes him hot is It Was Written. Illmatic didn’t change the way people rapped. That style basically died with that album because it doesn’t work commercially.

The sparse production, heady lyrics, lack of a bonafide single, and basically no flash/swag at all are the harbingers of death for a rapper/rap album. The vibes introduced by It Was Written and its contemporaries still reverberate throughout the rap world. It Was Written was evolution at its finest- a necessary change for Nas to continue to survive.

Please hate me now.



  1. kobe is not better than jordan.

  2. I gotta side with you on this. I heard "It was written" before I heard "Illmatic". And to this day I bump "It was written" more. I can't explain why I like it more I just do. But I clearly couldn't fault those that like Illmatic more.

  3. @ Jay1 It's debatable, but I must admit Jordan is the best ever. Jordan definitely played in a tougher era under a way tighter whistle and many of his contemporaries are legends; however, I think kobe is a better passer, 3pt shooter, and one on one defender.

    @Nightfall i agree

  4. See Post like this keep me writing my Poetry, it takes on a life of itself!

    The Post that was written, very thought through, articulate & to the point with back up Theories!

    I put myself on to Nas as I got older!

    Sometimes when write a Poem, I quote "It was Written"at the end of it, sorta like a P.S.,
    To a letter!

    Great Post! Hopefully ull invite me to post a Poem!


  5. Honestly I can't decide if I want write a response or just break it down in the comment section.

    Basically consider this my "saying nothing because I've got nothing nice to say."

    I will say...nah, I'll hold off.

    Good day sir!

  6. oh yea i waited a whooooooooole 2 months at least for this one ILLMATIC vs IT WAS WRITTEN... keeping my fingers crossed that bullets would fly in a legendary friday face off for all time.... and here it is almost ( thursday and no get back from the competition ) But who the hell am i to judge right !!!!!! ??????????
    exactly. im SILENT MURDA trick and i gotta tell ya if u were lucky enough to live in new york in 96 when that IT WAS WRITTEN dropped then you already know !!!!!!!!!!
    but for those who werent fortunate enough to experience it and dont know ill run it down to you for very different reasons why it was written was better than illmatic and i fuck with pinky ring on this.

    1) when nas said the album was it was written trust me IT REALLY WAS FUCKIN WRITTEN. The promotion for this album was like nothing id ever seen before. instead of posters and stickers pinned up everywere, NAS's steet team commenced to spray painting nas's name and album title into the fuckin pavement and walls of every New York street available. i remeber comin out of the store one day and saying to myself wat is this shit ???? wat is written ??? is the world about to end ????.. and i wasnt alone everyone else wanted to know too !!!

    2) as pinky ring stated it was some powerful shit already pummeling the streets and airwaves ( ready to die and only built for cuban linx )and nas already sittin on a classic in the mist competition and pressure mounting trying to avoid the sophmore jinx had the audacity to announce his second coming in such a brash, criminolgy, graffiti, warriror like fashion that he almost could couldnt afford to lose he had to come twice as hard and not jus with the same shit... but he had to blow niggas mines once again and on a much grander scale without losing his edge and all at the tender age of 21 a tru testament of a coming of age tale and profound genius only seen in the likes of movies

    3)HE SUCCEEDED !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    on the biggest satge of them all under the brightest of lights in a breathe taking short 24month window. as opposed to a lifetimes worth of work up to the point in which illmatic was concieved. and it allllllllll resonated , not jus with die hard fans, purist and street niggas but with everybody women, children, adults criminals 9 to 5 niggas casual listeners and most of all his contemporarys and all without miossin a beat !!!!!!!!!!! my sister to this day still sings black girl lost, mother still sings if i rules the world wit the wonderful stylings of mrs lauryn hill and me well, he saved the best for last SILENT MURDA "I HIT BLUNTS HARD LIKE RAY MERCER". HAHA but you had to buy the actuall cassette tape to experience that treasue cuz thats the type of nigga nas was and still is. in the rise of the cd era he didnt forget about his niggas that still did it wit a boom box and side A and side B cassette he made sure he served them accordingly and gave em something they couldnt forget. he feed us all. it was writtena full course meal like no other ... it was and is that thanks giving dinner we all still talk about till this day that keeps us starving for more. you remember !!!

    and with that said im off to the bodega to grab 40oz cuz i cant front i still got that ILLMATIC shitin ME and i love it to death but IT WA WRITTEN different. all praise and hopefully after this a young talented fishandspaghetti
    CO-D will have no choice but to tell his side and shout it loound from the mountain tops. cuz im truly curious to hear it.

    until next time its MURDA bitches !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    catch me if u can

  7. Some good points in here, but It Was Written is a solid album but it is NOT "better" than Illmatic.

  8. In fairness, would anyone really expect Silent Murda to side with Illmatic given the song "Silent Murda" is from It Was Written?

    I've got to say that it seems like this issue is building up to a Fish & Spaghetti civil war. Pinky and Murda vs me and someone else. It's crazy.

    What really sucks is that now I have to write a rebuttal. This has clearly spiraled out of control.

  9. Also here's what Joe Budden said on Twitter on 7/4

    "It was written on blast, I still think this shit is better than illmatic, don't care about popular opinion.."Vicious lookin delicious..."

  10. lol...Joe budden loves being that guy that supposed "doesn't care about popular opinion".

    But anyway, sidenote....VH1 has totaled ripped you guys off with there "The Great Debate" show

    The same way Punked was a rip off of Red and Meth's "Stung" show.

  11. @Nightfall914 we've been ripped off plenty in less than a year's time so we must be doing something right. Some other website totally pillaged the twinterview segment, but i won't acknowledge their existence by putting up a link to them.

  12. When I first read the title of this post, I was hesitant to objectively read your reasons why "It Was Written" is better than "Illmatic." When I first heard "It Ain't Hard to Tell" and "Who's World is This" on the radio as an 8th grader, I knew that I had to have this tape (yes, I still loved tapes even though I had a CD player..) I dissected every song and even wrote the lyrics to "Represent", "One Time for Your Mind" and "One Love" in a composition book. "Illmatic" was the definitive album for me. I had the opportunity to meed Nas and he actually signed my "Illmatic" tape cover. I never gave any other Nas album a chance for a loooong time because it wasn't Illmatic. I have heard "It Was Written" but never really listened to it. The points you have made in this post have motivated me to do just that.

  13. @Kyva I appreciate your comment; I hope "It Was Written" doesn't disapoint.

  14. When you people discuss Illmatic, you should try talk about the content of them songs that 18/19 year old wrote. I word play, the flow, the consistency in the attention to detail through the whole album puts it in a class by itself. The feel of the album is New York Hip Hop. The lyricism is of an level of intelegence that shocked listeners when we first heard it, not to mention the fact that it was written by a teenager. Come on now. I'd like to know who the idiot was that started comparing 'Ready to Die' and 'Reasonable doubt' to Illmatic in the first place. The metaphors, analygies and vocabulary are make for listeners of a different class. The reason why you don't hear Illmatic pouring out of every other car on the street is the same reason you are more likely to hear Justin Timberlake than D'Angelo, the machine feeds the masses and the masses at all that clever. P.S. Biggie & Puffy, Dre & Snoop, 5Oc and Jay Z are all millionaires because white middle America bought into the music and purchased the albums and that don't mean nothing when it comes to judging quality. 'never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death'

  15. I thought that this argument itself was taboo. I'm so glad you brought it to light. It was writtn was a much better Album.


  16. First of all, I loved reading this. Props! Though I disagree on a few points.

    - I think It Was Written is great, but not more than that. Illmatic is more than great. It's better rap shit than everything I heard in the last two decades. But I respect your opinion. Even more because most people tend to disagree with you on this one.

    - Then, as you stated "Illmatic is very heavy and the beats don't do anything to lighten the load." > True that. Most of the times I prefer Illmatic above It Was Written for this exact same reason. This heavy and raw beats with the poet Nas on it does the trick for me. The beats who ruled the club are not really my thing.

    - I guess using the succes of singles as an argument on which cd is better is quite "assigning value to something by recognizing how many people like it," which you said you didn't want to do.

    Then again, I respect your opinion, I loved reading this article and I still disagree.

  17. I'm starting to get bored of illmatic. No doubt it's still one of the greatest albums of all time but I still feel like listening to shootouts, the message, affirmative action, i gave you power.



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