Nasir Jones’ sophmore release was the Very First album that I sought out and purchased myself. I was 13 and figured it was time for me to define my music taste and hip-hop expertise by actually owning some full length albums made by the very artists who I spent hours upon hours sitting in front of the radio recording. So as I outgrew the craft of sticking pieces of toilet paper in the corners of whichever of my big sister Veen’s tapes I deemed wack or something she wouldn’t miss, it dawned on me that even though I was Thee Nicest at the skill of strategically pausing the recording right before the station identification, or the annoying Funkmaster Flex drop would come on, Maybe I should join the actual big boy club and have the uncut, uninterrupted project in my hands. Maybe then I’d know just what these Euro-chic and gangster flick references were about that all of the popular New York rappers at that time sprinkled in their raps .
I still Never quite understood any of that,
but what I was surprised and ever so pleased to find was a full print out of almost all the lyrics contained on said album. I bought It Was Written in the summer of 1996 at a Wiz in downtown Manhattan. I’m really showing my age here because If I’m not mistaken, The Wiz doesn’t even exist anymore! Anywhere!
But this purchase was on the heels of deciding that Nas was the most relatable rapper to me at the time. I didn’t know I was going to be a rapper. I had…uhhh…retired after a 2 year stint in a kiddie rap group a la Da Youngstaz. The thing is that, this particular summer would be the first time since I was 10 that I picked up a pen to attempt to start rapping again. It was actually the first time I picked up a pen, since I used to write my rhymes in my head (Word to Big!).
But anyway, Nas fueled my inspiration to re-enter the world of hip-hop and write narrative street tales because in the previous year, the spectrum of New York rappers was limited to killers, drug dealers, players, hardcore keepers of the funk, or obscure backpackers who nobody wanted to be.
Nas represented someone who strangely sat in some semblance of a middle ground where all these characters existed together. No one ever questioned how hood he was, but the general consensus was that he’s not the shooter, rather the guy chronicling the shooting. Not the kingpin, but perhaps the guy who was cool with the Kingpin’s people and maybe did some jobs for him back in the day on the come up trying to stay fly.
We respected Nas for being something that we never had before; An authentic street poet. Not a preacher like Chuck D, Not a Teacher like KRS, Not a God like Rakim, not a Killer like Kool G, Not a gangster like Ice Cube – not even angry. Just a poet.
So I figured, I’m from the Hood, My teachers told me I was an excellent poet in school. I can slide in that same spot that Nas Held. He opened a door that wasn’t there before.
This was all until I popped the cassette in (yes I said Cassette) and got engulfed in a blitz of Mafioso-drenced, King of New York delusional episodic raps and psuedo-intellectual musings on Hood happenings.
I would find out later that this album was filled with subliminal shots at the other contenders for legendary status at the time, and was actually Nas’ idea of attempting to garner mainstream attention. I guess in a way it worked, because he got much more notereity from the singles released off of this album than his debut. Although Illmatic gets all the praise and critical acclaim, it’s not up for debate that chics or radio weren’t checking for mr. Jones until “If I ruled the world” featuring the then unstoppable (and sane) Lauryn Hill came out.
Anyway, I loved this album so much that I took it with me all the way down to Atlanta that same month when I went to spend some time with my cousins who had recently moved there from Brooklyn. They were fans of M.O.P. (Who they grew up with), and anything that was New York-Centric, so I knew they would love it as much as I did. And they did. We played it in the house, in the parking lot, on the way to Kroger. On the way to Publix. On the way to and from the studio and the airport. It was fun times.
Until somebody’s little daughter was over one of the apartments with us, and as the video game playing and beer drinking ensued to the soundtrack of track 7 “Take it in Blood“, there was one moment of parental instinct that kicked in when my female cousin Rainy interjected and told us to cut it off after some lyric where Nas blurts out “..Pussies and Buttholes…”
At first I was like damn, why we gotta cut off the Nas just because somebody’s little bebe kid is over here with the grown ups (and uhmm…almost…grown-ups??). But then it made me wonder, damn… as someone who didn’t use those kinds of words himself, how much did I actually relate to Nas? And what the Hell was Nas talking about anyway??
So upon a more scrutinizing listen after that epiphany, I realized that Not even Nas knew what he was talking about half of the time. Although I was blown away by the creativity of “I Gave You Power“, it seemed those clear, focused moments of consistent and linear lyricism and storytelling were few and far between.
I studied the whole lyrics sheet for the rest of my ATL stay and I still didn’t understand most of what I was reading. What the fuck is “Blood money in a pimp’s cum” ? That math equation that he clearly wrote for Foxy’s verse on “Affirmative Action” not adding up, “dipped attache” “mad man Cassius Clay“…huh??! The average casual hip-hop listener couldn’t tell you what Nas’ point is on the average Nas song. It just sounded good. And there you have the biggest thing about hip-hop; The sound.
And the sound is what makes this such a classic to me. Besides all of the sentimental attachment I have to this album, the biggest influence it had on me was that sonically, it was like nothing else.
It proved that hip-hop had matured to a point where you can defy the standard and rap over MUSIC. This was music. These beats kind of set a marker for Nas. He became known for picking these melodious instrumentals to tell these cinematic story raps over and it was a perfect marriage. The beats on this album were straight up Beautiful! haha!
Nowadays you only hear these kinds of beats on underground projects and rarely on Major releases. Yet ironically, these are the very kinds of beats that are behind most peoples favorite songs on most albums. Those songs that are the most memorable, and have the most feeling to them. Almost every song on this album had that kind of sound.
Some of the beats outshadow the rhymes due to Nas’ habit to dip into non-sequitters and randomness, not to mention overall unbelievable claims ( “Take it in blood” being a prime example), But my favorite moments are when he gets it just right and makes perfect sense all throughout one song with the perfect beat. The next best thing is when enough of the verses are followable and it’s just that damn dope that you don’t even care if it’s the most authentic or logical.
Having that said, my favorite songs off of this album are
“Black Girl Lost”
“Watch Them Niggas”
of course this hidden gem that only the cassette holders (such as myself) knew about – “Silent Murder”.
Despite all my perceived gripes with this body of work, it remains the very album that started my collection and began my journey. Anybody who knows me knows that I have a Love-Hate relationship with Nas and it’s due to his inconsistency of Character, and sometimes hunger (“Live Nigga Rap” is the only track on the album where he doesn’t sound asleep. Maybe Mobb Deep put the battery in his back). I would say he’s a victim of how people envision him as some kind of prophetical griot who is just so deep, but he Fuels and fosters that very idea himself in the midst of delivering the most blatant contradictions hip-hop has ever seen way beyond anything 2pac could have done. He’s shown that he wants to be considered the King of New York as bad as Jay or Big wanted to, he just dressed it up with less glitzy fanfare and didn’t say it straightforward. He rarely says anything straightforward!
But it’s all because he’s a hodgepodge of things. As noted on the album he exhibits this himself when he professes “I’m all about techs, good jux and sex, Israelite books…” when you start a sentence off like that, where the fuck else can you possibly be going??
While he may not be My Favorite rapper, he is definitely one of my biggest influences, and this album changed my life and the way I view rap albums forever.
If I may be bold enough to rate it on my 16 Candles scale, I would say it falls just short of Phenomenal and give it 12 Candles out of a possible
4, 8, 12 or 16.
4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)
8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)
12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)
16(Classic all around)