While J. Cole rapped about letting Nas down for doing a pop record, the Queens MC also went down a similar path when it came time to record his 1996 sophomore album, It Was Written. After the critically-acclaimed, but moderately successful Illmatic in 1994, Nas switched up things, foregoing the raw, underground New York rap sound and embracing the mafioso themes of his more popular contemporaries. At the time, Nas was facing financial difficulties due to extravagant spending and was envious of the way he saw Puff Daddy and The Notorious B.I.G. flossing. Steve Stoute, who didn’t want Nas to become the next Kool G. Rap, a great rapper with little to no sales, guided the project and helped Nas achieve a more mainstream sound. Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the album has sold more than 4 million copies and is arguably considered Nas’ greatest album. It was influential for the way it straddled the fence between underground New York rap and a more commercial sound.
Produced primarily by the Trackmasters, It Was Written featured a more polished, lush, sample-heavy mainstream sound. Instead of the narratives of urban poverty, gang rivalries, drugs and the life of an inner-city teen, this Nas was telling the stories of a mob lord. While he still could weave a ghetto story like a journalist stuck in a foxhole at Normandy, he wasn’t the young turk Nasty Nas, but now the made man Nas Escobar, wearing suits and rocking jewelry instead of an oversized Starter jacket.
The first single, “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” featuring Lauryn Hill would be the first clue that Nas had changed, as the song featured more intricate production and R&B elements. The accompanying video, inspired by the movie Casino, was a glossy affair far from his Queensbridge home. The song reached No. 53 on the Hot 100 and was nominated for a 1997 GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. This was followed up “Street Dreams,” which had a remix featuring R. Kelly that would almost eclipse the original. That single would eventually reach No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. One major surprise on the album was the track “Nas is Coming,” produced by Dr. Dre. The song was controversial for the time as you had a major West Coast producer producing a track for a major East Coast rapper in the midst of the East Coast/West Coast rap feud. “I Gave You Power,” produced by DJ Premier, is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of the gun that became a standout in its own right.
The project was criticized for its more mainstream sound, R&B pop leanings and top production. Nas’ lyrics were characterized as talking tough without really saying anything. In addition, the album is also credited with ushering in the era of mafioso rap. However, hindsight is often 20/20. And sales numbers don’t always lie. It Was Written represents a major era of growth for Nas, as well as hip-hop. While it is definitely an album of its time, its influence and greatness can’t be denied.