No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre.
There is a generous reading of “Street Dreams.” It goes like this: The third verse—the adolescent vantage point on the 10-foot hustlers in gold ropes who dole out pocket money and advice, the Jordans and gold chains discarded as childish distractions, the years “wasted” on idle talk and dice games in project stairwells—qualifies the rote crime tales from the first two, excuses the unfathomably corny hook, and sets the whole thing up as a fugue state to be punctured by the violent skit at the song’s end. It becomes a cautionary tale, a naive fantasy set against grim reality.
To take this view is to believe that Nas’s second album, It Was Written, is not unlike his first, the cockily brilliant, instantly canonized Illmatic. You’re invited to picture a prodigy leaning on a windowsill—maybe cuffed to a radiator—observing every skirmish and robbery beneath him, rendering them in lurid detail and obsessing over their consequences. Yet that’s not how the album was received at the time, at least by its harsher critics. They argued that the record was grotesque evidence of Nas selling out, aesthetically but also morally. A true-school genre savior cashing in with cynical radio plays, trading Illmatic’s beyond-his-years wisdom for an affected mafioso shtick. (It could be noted with some amusement that The Source’s four-mic review describes it as a “more mature” persona.)
Rolling Stone gave the album two stars, criticizing Nas for trafficking in rap that prizes “authenticity, not articulation” and calling the lead single a “crossover con job.” However cynically you choose to read the rollout, it worked. While Illmatic hit no. 12 on the Billboard 200 and took nearly two years to be certified gold, It Was Written spent four weeks at no. 1 and was double platinum just a couple of months after its release.
Since that release 25 years ago this month, It Was Written’s reputation has been rehabilitated, though these original complaints frame the discussion, even in its most impassioned defenses. This is unavoidable: Its poppiest songs are without exception its worst, and—especially on the A side, when they appear as tracks 3, 5, and 7—they creep in like intrusive thoughts, refusing the record any of the rhythm that its better moments deserve. What scans differently today is that pulp-crime undercurrent. It can be overused (such as in the first two-thirds of “Street Dreams”), but with some remove, whatever credibility-straining maneuvers Nas pulls just make It Was Written’s songs more desperate, more claustrophobic, more immediate. It brings to mind a question Nas asks on one of the album’s best—and most undeniably menacing—songs: “Why shoot the breeze about it / When you could be about it?”
In his autobiography, Rakim tells the story of his first session at Marley Marl’s home recording studio. This would have been 1985. Though he was considered a prodigy of sorts on Long Island, Ra was still in high school. Marley was already a legend, and this apartment, on the second floor of the Queensbridge Houses, is where the Juice Crew members would eventually cut many of their records. But instead of standing at the mic that was set up for him, the young rapper was lazing on a sofa while he laid vocals.
“That was dope,” Ra recalls Marley saying of his first take. “Let’s do it again with a little more energy.” But he did it the same way. This, he insisted, was simply how he rapped. Another take, then another. They came to an impasse. MC Shan showed up—MC Shan!—and, after a quiet commiseration with Marley in his kitchen, took over the session. Shan tried to reason with the teenager: “Marley knows what he’s talking about. A little more energy won’t hurt you.” Rakim held firm. History would vindicate him—the song they made that day became Paid in Full’s “My Melody”—and Rakim tells this story as a parable about trusting your instincts, your vision, yourself.
Nas, who grew up in Queensbridge, idolized Rakim. You hear this in the way his Illmatic style makes Ra’s latticework internal rhymes denser, more riddled with knots, and more multidirectional; you hear it acutely in tiny threads of It Was Written, like when he raps that “a provocative plan could bring a knot to my hand.” (In 2004, Nas would even make a song about Ra, though the older rapper was uncomfortable with the gesture.) But he also looked up to Marley, the local hero. With Illmatic’s compounding pressures—its rapturous acclaim and its commercial stagnancy—weighing heavily on him, Nas sought out the latter, hoping to make “a street album” with him, as he told Complex in 2012. By this point, though, Marley had relocated from Queensbridge to Chestnut Ridge, an hour away, and there were days Nas couldn’t be bothered to make the trip. Songs sat half-finished; some ended up on radio shows or on mixtapes with grafted-on verses by rappers Nas didn’t know. Deterred, he decided he couldn’t work like this, abandoned the plan, and prepared to start over.
At this time, Nas had just agreed to be managed by Steve Stoute, the ball of kinetic energy and business aphorisms who would one day have Puff break a bottle of champagne over his head. (The story—a story—goes that Stoute, dogged as always, showed up to Queensbridge looking to sign Nas, only to have a gun pulled on him by Nas’s brother, Jungle. But Stoute persisted, and soon inked the deal. “He wanted it more than anybody else,” Nas would later say.) Stoute also managed the Trackmasters, the production duo of Tone and Poke who had a tangential Juice Crew connection through their work on Kool G Rap’s Live and Let Die and the second Roxanne Shanté album, but were better known for beats that were glossy, clean, and diametrically opposed to Nas’s image. But with no other obvious routes to follow, the gnawing fear of a sophomore jinx in his gut, and lacking the resolve to follow through on his original vision for the LP, Nas dove into the Trackmasters sessions headfirst.
The duo ended up producing seven of It Was Written’s 14 tracks, but oversaw the entire process. They coaxed Nas into their comfort zone, offering him first their grimier beats, like the acid-dipped “Shootouts,” before pitching him the radio singles, “Street Dreams” among them. This unlikely trio crafted an album that de-emphasizes its grittier elements in an apparent effort to be more legible to the widest possible audience, and to avoid Nas seeming out of step with a New York that was bending toward Wu-Tang and the Notorious B.I.G.
There were doubters. When Stoute took the mixes of It Was Written to the studio to be mastered, Q-Tip—the Queens native and A Tribe Called Quest frontman who produced “One Love” on Illmatic and had just overseen Mobb Deep’s masterpiece The Infamous—said that Stoute was “killing [Nas’s] career.” What is interesting to consider, though, is that whatever identity Nas claimed on Illmatic was itself the product of careful calibration. After his 1991 breakthrough on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” he reveled in a reputation as a bit of a shock rapper—the natural by-product of a debut verse in which he bragged about “snuffing Jesus.” If you’ve ever wondered about the slight tonal disagreement between Nas’s raps on “Represent” and DJ Premier’s apocalyptic beat, it comes because the verses are relics from the more playful demo, a song whose beat is more suited to lines about wearing “nothing less than Guess” and pissing in your elevator. And when Nas’s skeptics read his immediate post-Illmatic output as unnecessarily reactive to those other emerging New York acts, they forget that one of the signature mafioso albums, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., includes a showstopping Nas verse that is repurposed from another early demo.
There are points on It Was Written that are as dazzlingly written and delivered as anything in Nas’s catalog. The shootout skit that ends “Street Dreams” gives way to “I Gave You Power,” the Premier-helmed track on which Nas personifies a gun. It is a serviceable concept that could easily become overwrought, but by the beginning of its madcap third verse, the song has earned a wrenching pathos: You hold your breath when Nas raps about the gun owner’s hand reaching into the hiding place where it lives; you feel that owner’s palm trembling as he grips it. On the opening song, “The Message,” Nas is as dense and virtuosic as ever: see the way Nas sets up, from the first line of the second verse, the rhyme scheme that he’ll eventually drill down on, briefly abandon, and eventually pay off with the word “Datsun,” all while telling a breathless story about brief hospital stays and unsolvable shootings.
And not all of the album’s polish is bad. It is notable that, on virtually all of the solo songs (and on its superb posse cut), the best verse comes last—evidence of a careful approach to the songwriting, and a reliable way to maintain some forward motion even when the dregs fuck up the flow. The exception is “Take It in Blood,” but this does not mean that song loses steam toward its end. Instead, like “The Message,” it’s a maze of staggering detail and pinpoint rhymes, impossible to find your way into or out of. It invites the kind of rewinds that wear grooves into your brain. Combine this subtle elegance with the album’s B-side that, one song aside, is hollowed-out and venomous—Mobb Deep’s Havoc helms “The Set Up” and “Live Nigga Rap”; “Suspect” is a dead-eyed threat—and It Was Written seems like a monster, a deeper dive into the horrors of Nas’s youth formatted for the big screen.
But you cannot simply write off that one song on the B-side: “Black Girl Lost,” which features Jodeci’s JoJo, is adult-contemporary radio’s version of ’90s R&B-rap hybrids, silky smooth but mawkish in the worst way. The track nearly derails the album just as it seems to be recovering from that stop-start sputter of an opening (and some would later openly mock Nas for having made it at all).
Those earlier pop forays are not as disastrous as “Black Girl Lost,” but they come close. Writing for the short-lived but massively influential magazine Ego Trip, Elliott Wilson described the Trackmasters’ beat for “Watch Dem Niggas” as having an “N.O. Joe–like synthesized laziness.” At first read, this scans as a mid-’90s New Yorker’s flat rejection of what was happening in the South, but to listen to “Watch Dem” is to hear, unmistakably, a photocopy of a photocopy of the style Joe turned out so reliably. And then there’s the almost comically cheesy, Dr. Dre–produced “Nas Is Coming,” a heralded union of the West and East Coasts that evokes the very worst music made on each.
What tantalizes on It Was Written are the moments of near-perfect coalescence that hint at what a consistently focused Nas over the Trackmasters’ best sheen might have unlocked in each other. All that labyrinthine writing on “The Message,” for example, is laid over that Sting sample; “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” marries Whodini to The Score in a crystal-clear mix for radio. The most curious example of this, though, comes in the second verse of “Watch Dem,” when Nas’s animated delivery embodies the merger while his lyrics literalize it. The song is otherwise pedestrian, but here he raps about doing 90 on the freeway, drunk, with 10 grand in cash and a gun beside him. A “death wish,” he says. But when he checks his watch—a Movado, he notes—he sees that it’s 7 o’clock, “the God hour,” the Five Percenter ideology bleeding through the way it would for a native New Yorker in this era. The implicit argument is that “Street Dreams” and “Suspect” do not come from different neighborhoods, but the same one—one that Nas had been documenting from his teenage years on.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.