I never actually intended to defend Illmatic; I didn't think that I had too. Illmatic is universally praised. But once Pinky Ring fired that opening salvo In This Post Here and got cosigned by Silent Murda, I knew I'd have to dust off the old keyboard.
So before I build up Illmatic, let me first attack Pinky Ring's points.
First up is the whole sales aspect. While Pinky doesn't officially factor it into this reasoning, he's got no problem rubbing it in Illmatic's face. He compares Snoop and Dr. Dre's success and sales with Nas' lack thereof.
For one thing Dr. Dre's was a solo offering by a member of a seminal rap group. Perhaps you've heard of N.W.A.? Some may even recall a feud between Eazy E and Dr. Dre which probably helped Dre's sales. Also Snoop's first appearance was on a song from the Deep Cover soundtrack, which had people fiending for his eventual release.
Both Snoop and Dre received crazy airplay on MTV. Also, they're from the West Coast where bootlegging was still in it's infancy. Meanwhile it's common knowledge that Illmatic was one of the most heavily bootlegged albums of it's time, which probably put a crimp in those sales figures. So comparing Nas' sales to Snoop and Dre's sales is an exercise in faulty logic. It'd be like comparing the sales of Mos Def's debut to Eminem's debut since they were released within a year of each other, when everyone knows there are other factors in play.
Anyway, here are three strikes against It Was Written.
It Was Influenced – Pinky references this in his piece.
It comes off the heels of Only Built for Cuban Linx Niggas and Ready to Die and it sounds like it. And honestly I'd toss in The Infamous as another album that influenced It Was Written. You can hear the Cuban Linx in the Mafioso rhymes about crime. You can hear Ready To Die in the grandiose rhymes and the overt materialism. And you can here The Infamous any time Nas transcends observing and strives for grimy and hood. You can't tell me that The Firm would exist if there were no Junior M.A.F.I.A.
It Was Bloated – The album doesn't need to be 14 tracks. Personally I think if you cut "Live Nigga Rap" and "Watch Dem Niggas" and the album wouldn't miss a beat. And that's me keeping "Suspect" which I forgot was even on the album until I listened to it for this piece. And I'm sure that even if you disagree with my picks you can think of at least one song you'd take off the album.
It Was Thirsty – I love Nas and I'm glad that he achieved his success, but the only true "Nas" songs on It Was Written are "The Message", "I Gave You Power", "Take It in Blood" and "Black Girl Lost." Everything else is in some way Nas trying to appeal to a wider audience and get the success that Biggie was having. Steve Stoute and Trackmsters executive produced the album which really tells you all you need to know about it's commercial aspirations. The first single "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" was not only built the sample from a Hip-Hop classic, but it featured Lauryn Hill at the peak of The Fugee's popularity. It Was Written was an album designed to succeed in terms of sales, it just happened to be dope lyrically as well.
Basically, while It Was Written is a solid follow up, in the larger scheme of things it's little more than Nas' first step on the slippery slope of striving for commercial acceptance. It Was Written showed the first signs of the questionable judgment that later begat I Am and Nastradamus.
And now I'll further my point by giving three reasons why Illmatic is the superior album.
It Was Peerless – Illmatic is a pure document of an artist. It was written in a vacuum. It's influenced by his life and by those he looks up to, but not by what his peers are doing or what's popular. At the time Nas didn't have any peers. There isn't a song on Illmatic that seems like it's trying capture some trend. It's just a young artist trying to convey his truth.
It Was Leaner – Illmatic has no filler. More than that, Illmatic has no song that requires you to jog your memory to recall. It's nine songs and one intro. You can look at the track listing, see the song titles and the classics star playing in your head. No song is out of place. It's skip-proof.
It Was Influential – Illmatic's influence is still being felt today. Nas was one of the first emcees to come out of nowhere and have incredible buzz. The hype around Illmatic was fever pitch. Nas was someone people were fiending to hear more from. Sort of like 50 Cent or Drake. He was the like the first and the brightest hope of Hip-Hop's next generation. Nas was the first emcee who was going to "save Hip-Hop" a phrase that's all to common now.
Also Illmatic was the beginning of the "all-star producer" album. Illmatic featured beats from Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, L.E.S. and DJ Premier. Of course now that's a practice that's commonplace, but in 1994 having beats by superstar producers on the same album was unheard of.
Look, I love It Was Written, but one of the reasons for it's greatness stems from the fact that its' following up a classic. It Was Written lived up to the hype and expectations, but the hype and expectations were only there because of Illmatic. The fans had high hopes and Nas delivered. But giving people what they want and expect doesn't make you "great;" it makes you adequate, it means you're doing your job.
Now I'm going to get really real with you; It Was Written is soulless. That album has no heart. It's a dope collection of songs that have great lyrics and some sick beats. But where's the heart? Where's the soul? Illmatic has a soul and tons of heart. I walk down "Memory Lane" with Nas. I feel what he feels in "One Love." Life is a bitch, but the world is mine. Those songs resonate. It Was Written just doesn't have that. The closest that it comes is "If I Ruled the World" whose blind ambition cancels out whatever soul it's imbued with.
So that's it, those are my thoughts on the matter. Wait, except to say that "It Ain't Hard to Tell" sampled Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", word to Michael Madness.