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.