20 years ago this week, one of the most unknowingly important days in hip hop shaped me into the rap nerd that I have become. July 2nd of this year marks the 20th anniversary since Nas’ sophomore studio album, It Was Written, was released to the public.
This particular anniversary is a bit more important to me as a fan than majority of the hip hop community celebrating the day of April 19, 1994.
Although the Queensbridge MC has obtained countless accomplishments within his lengthy career since then, this particular project is arguably one of his most significant. Yes, today, Nas is now a two-decade veteran, and is still high in-demand amongst the rap community, but without some expertly calculated moves, impeccable bars, an eye for the truth, and room for growth, different beginnings could have solidified a shorter ending.
When the hip hop community discusses the “classic” category amongst album conversations, there’s almost no question that Illmatic will always be within that conversation. Nas’ debut held heavy power, stamping his place as one of the most impactful in the game as hip hop made its transition into the “golden era.” Releasing his first official project with no major features, the backing of a major record label, and some of the top producers in the game, it was the perfect alley-oop to let a young Nasir Jones take the rap baton and run ahead of the game.
But after providing such an explosive entrance into the mainstream hip hop spotlight, the doubts started coming in strong, and frankly, as expected. The questions are still raised today for those who push out magnificent debuts: How will they keep this dominant reign up? Is there room or time to grow before attention spans fade? Is this already the peak? Back in 1995, the year following his Illmatic release, these run-on whispers circled Nas’ name amongst rap fans all over.
The room for substantial growth introduced itself politely to Nas, and he wasn’t shy of diving deep into it face first. Fans were already well aware of the extraordinary wordplay Nas was capable of, but this sophomore release saw a significant upgrade. With lines such as, “Diamonds I flaunt ‘em. Chickenheads flock, I lace ‘em, fried, broiled with basil, taste ‘em. Crack they legs way out of formation. It’s horizontal how I have ‘em,” off of “The Message,” fans were re-introduced to a newly advanced quick-witted MC.
It even saw the birth and peak of The Firm, with Foxy Brown, AZ, and Cormega dispensing some of their best bars on the infamous collaboration, “Affirmative Action.”
His picture-painting skills remained in tact as well, as he continued on with his gritty New York street tales that were displayed on Illmatic. Tracks like “I Gave You Power” and “The Set Up” told some cringe-worthy stories that flaunted Nas’ gift for detail. “Beat up and battered, they pull me out. I watch as ni**as scattered, making me kill, but what I feel ain’t never mattered,” Nas rhymed with a tone of wince on “I Gave You Power.” The entire project takes on a consistent flow that brings light to hustling through a broken system that is still relevant amongst society today.
Although the album is deeply appreciated by loyal Nas admirers, it still doesn’t see a proper positioning within rap conversations of the present. When the hip hop community pulls the rapper’s name into the classic albums conversation, it’s inevitable that all signs point to Illmatic for majority involvement of his royal status. However, It Was Written can easily be argued as his best work, along with being validation of his higher pedestal in the rap game. It’s no easy feat to release a solid debut album that makes the history books, but annihilating the sophomore slump is an even larger triumph.
In the words of Mr. Jones himself, “There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King.”
This anniversary may not be viewed to be as worthy of a dedication to this body of work such as the 20-year marks of an Illmatic, or even a Reasonable Doubt, or the launch of Bad Boy Records, but it’s still worthy of a celebration. Nas came, saw, conquered, and was able to do it all over again a second time around after one of the greatest debuts in hip hop history. His growing style, caidence, wordplay, and story-telling ability helped set the tone for rap over the next decade. It’s time for hip hop to rip the band-aid off and recognize the mark that was made from Nas’ second studio project.
So, I raise you one question rap stans. At the 20-year-mark, can we finally include It Was Written into the classic mainstream rap albums conversation?