In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Nas’ It Was Written which spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Illmatic’s place in the rap pantheon is assured; critics don’t really write about the record so much as approach the monolith. It gets books and documentaries and oral histories; greatness glows off it, self-evident. This was the case at the time, too. Nas’ handful of buzzed-about underground verses heralded a talent that, over the course of 10 tracks, Illmatic exhaustively proved. The Source—at the time, one of the publications best charting and making sense of hip-hop’s golden age—broke its internal rule of not giving debut records a perfect score in order to give the thing a coveted five-mic rating. You couldn’t not with Illmatic.
If you end the story there—as many histories of Nas do—it’s one of an otherworldly young man achieving artistic actualization right out of the gate. But it’s also the beginning of a second, equally interesting journey: that is, Nas’ return to Earth. Illmatic peaked at a disappointing No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and sunk like a stone from there. Half of the album’s tracks—each a bona fide, front-to-back classic—were released as singles, and all failed to make waves on the charts. It took two years for it to go gold in an era when Hootie could move 7 million albums in a year. People still bought records back in 1994; they just didn’t buy Illmatic.
And so, about five months after his first record finally crawled into gold status, Nas sold out. He dropped his second record, It Was Written, in July 1996, and its every artistic choice seemed to be a reaction to Illmatic’s sluggish sales. Its cover nodded to its predecessor, the eyes of a child replaced by the stare of a young star. The gothic font of his name in the upper-right corner was now stylized, with a sharp-edged, tribal-tattoo-like flare to it. Illmatic had one guest verse, AZ’s effervescent turn on “Life’s A Bitch,” but It Was Written featured R&B singers, new posses, Dr. Dre. The murderers’ row of producers from the first record—DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor—had been replaced, largely, by Trackmasters, a duo closely affiliated with Puff Daddy who would go on to produce hits for Will Smith and Mariah Carey. It Was Written was a pop-rap coming out party, for both that production team and the young man smoldering from the cover. The record debuted at No. 1, stayed there for four weeks, and remains Nas’ all-time best-selling record.
The fact that it’s also one of his best, artistically, is almost beside the point, but it’s worth pausing to remember that the glow hadn’t yet faded. That lightness of tone from Illmatic is still on display; his verses have the wild, bleary beauty of digital cinematography, an Emmanuel Lubezki eye cutting through hallways and parks and rooting out moments of startling stillness. The third verse of “Street Dreams,” for example, caroms from innocent nostalgia to a much heavier sense of regret; “I Gave You Power,” on which Nas raps from the perspective of a gun, believes in its gimmick with a biological intensity (“My abdomen is the clip, the barrel is my dick uncircumcised”) and still finds room for plot twists and pathos. The dourness that would eventually put Nas on a cross with Puffy had yet to settle in; hip-hop was not yet dead to him.
The album’s financial success can be attributed to a canny understanding of pop music’s early flirtations with hard-knock rap. In 1996, R&B and pop were more frequently outsourcing guest spots to rappers, and rappers were enlisting more and more singers for their hooks, but lyrically, MCs were more unblinkingly obsessed with Scarface than ever. Off the strength of Illmatic, Nas became the first non-Wu MC deemed good enough to appear on a Wu-Tang record, but he was forced to adopt a Wu-style alternate persona—Nas Escobar, after the cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar—creating a fixation that pops up repeatedly on It Was Written. For all the pop-rap sheen of the record, Trackmasters still aim for RZA-like grime on “Affirmative Action” and “Shootouts,” and its biggest hit wasn’t the Lauryn Hill collaboration “If I Rule The World” but the melancholy “Street Dreams.” It Was Written may be a sellout record, in other words, but this is a distinctly 1996 version of selling out, full of baleful strings and aggressively stylized Wallabees references.
This tension—between poeticism and pop appeal, between golden age dustiness and danceable, R&B hooks—makes the record almost prescient. In the ensuing years hip-hop would fester, growing jiggier and jiggier, until it ruptured permanently into a backpack-carrying underground and a shiny-suit-wearing mainstream. In the early 2000s, MCs would speak feverishly of a delineation between hip-hop and hip-pop, and, while this argument would become cliché by the middle of the decade, it illustrates the very divide that tortures all of Nas’s post-Illmatic efforts. Even 2012’s Life Is Good defined itself by what was in the rearview mirror. It Was Written, then, is a bit like a school photo from hip-hop’s awkward stage, not yet comfortable in its place as the dominant form of popular music. There are many hip-hop albums from 1996 better than it, but few that sound so distinctly of their time.