A year ago, if you had asked me which of Nas’ first two albums I preferred, I would have bluntly answered It Was Written. Before you all lob your tirades and publicly shame me in the c-section, let me just preface them by saying I’ve heard every insult in the book, and have been trolled infinitely by my respected peers, colleagues and friends regarding the matter. I even addressed this in a lengthy rhetoric I penned in 2012, explaining my reasoning behind my opinions.
Yes, times have changed, and I’ve finally fallen into the majority group which widely shares the opinion that not only is Illmatic better than IWW, it’s also the greatest Hip-Hop album of all time. But today isn’t about debating over which album was better.
20 years ago, on July 2nd, 1996, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones blessed the rap world with his multiplatinum sophomore LP, It Was Written. Largely produced by The Trackmasters — with additional production provided by DJ Premier, Dr. Dre and L.E.S. — the brilliantly conceptual IWW marked an enormous paradigm shift in Hip-Hop, re-introducing a new era of mafioso rap (alongside Only Built 4 Cuban Linx) and also helping ease the palpable tension between the East Coast and West Coast with the genesis of The Firm.
Nas – “Affirmative Action” f. Nature, AZ & Foxy Brown
Penned under his mafioso pseudonym Nas Escobar, IWW served as an earmark of “civilized 90s rap” with references to Donald Goines’ novel on the gripping song “Black Girl Lost”, the Attica prison riots and liberation of incarcerated African Americans (“If I Ruled the World”) and gun violence on the Premo-laced conceptual classic “I Gave You Power.”
Elsewhere, Escobar season rose to even greater heights, with the desperado lifestyle poignantly and prominently put on display with songs like the Sting-sampling album opener “The Message,” “Affirmative Action” (which set up The Firm, unfortunately sans Cormega), “Shootouts” and “Live N*gga Rap” featuring Mobb Deep.
It Was Written served as rap’s cinéma vérité in audio form, documenting the harsh realities of life viewed through project windows, juxtaposed by the idea of hope, and the prospect of making it out the hood.
While It Was Written was a more bitter, but truthful look into an era where emcees were “crawling out every hole in the slum,” De La Soul’s fourth album, Stakes Is High (also released on July 2nd, 1996) was basically the antithesis to every gangster-themed rap album which preceded it.
De La Soul – “Big Brother Beat” f. Mos Def
Stepping away from the sound design of Prince Paul which permeated every De La album which came before it, Stakes Is High unapologetically stood tall on its soap box, boldly tackling the commercialization of rap and the invasion of corporations into the industry (“The Bizness” featuring Common). Other topics, such as the decline of real lyricism (“Supa Emcees”), the fallacy of gangsterism (“Itzsoweezee”) and materialism were explored, spread across 17-tracks, mainly produced by De La themselves.
The album’s penultimate Ahmad Jamal/James Brown-sampling title track, “Stakes Is High” — produced by J Dilla – essentialy summed up every topic touched on the album, with Plugs One, Two and Three flawlessly “translating the zone.”