“Sophomore album.” Look at that term, really look at it, read it with meaning. It’s a scary phrase, isn’t it? It can strike fear and anxiety into any semi-established artist or band. Here you are, riding the expectations of all your newfound admirers, thanks to a definitive debut project that blew up beyond your wildest dreams. The pressure is immense.
Fans and critics will pick, pick, pick at every note. They will analyse and speculate over every lyric, and even assign it a numerical rating out of five or ten. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how good your final product is, the savage consumers will still roast it. Just ask the Beastie Boys.
So now imagine you’re Nas, fresh off dropping one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, built on the deep roots of an underground culture riddled with grit and grime. A 21-year-old kid with the title of ‘breakthrough artist’, but in reality Illmatic had only shifted half a million copies, which in relative terms is middle ground – especially in the days before streaming. It was a slow burner. Two years on still at the raw age of 23, still living in Queens, NY he was to drop the follow-up. To bang or to bust.
A lot had happened in those two years; Biggie, Tupac, Dre, Mobb Deep, Cypress Hill, The Roots, LL Cool J and O.D.B. had all put out new music that in one way or another helped shape the culture. The drama of East vs. West had heated up after Tupac went psycho nuts pointing fingers for the shooting / robbery at Quad studios, theatrics Nas wanted no part of.
The kids on the block would rant, “You better not sell out Nas.” “You better drop some fire, Nas.”
“Don’t let me down Nas.”
The same kids Nas used to mess with, but now with the promise of commercial success, meant he was always going to have to tread a fine line. He initially wanted to have Marley Marl as his album curator but destiny dictated otherwise. To the concern of many, Trackmasters were enrolled as executive producers. Although known for their commercialisation and mainstream success, Nas and his team remained cautious as to make sure that the record was hip-hop through and through, guest producers to the likes of DJ Premier, Dr. Dre and Mobb Deep were invited to link up on the album.
The introduction is vintage, the rattling of chains, the popping of gunshots, a wistful conversation about breaking free and escaping as free men to the promised land. Queue the boom-bap, a homeboy giving Nas the what’s what of the neighbourhood, “you know what I’m sayin?” Nas simply responds, “no question.” He’s a man with answers, after all.
The first track, and third single was The Message, effectively just a guitar chop taken from Sting’s Shape Of My Heart. Nas gets as nasty as ever, it was just so simple.
“So when I rhyme it’s sincerely yours
Be lighting L’s, sipping Coors, on all floors in project halls
Contemplating war n***** I was cool with before
We used to score together, uptown copping the raw
But uhh, a thug changes, and love changes
And best friends become strangers, word up”
DJ Premier jumped on Gave You Power, bringing epic, spooky flavours to the record. Watch Dem N?!@%$ sees Nas lay down bars on top of bars about looking over your shoulder at all times, to a seriously funky bassline and the sass of Foxy Brown on the hook. It’s a track that perfectly exemplifies his ambition to push the underground into the mainstream by combining rhyme with melody.
One of the more controversial decisions was to stick a track with Dr. Dre on the album. Nas was prodding the bear in the middle of the East vs. West feud, but also made a bold statement.
“We wanted to show that a New York rapper could rap on a Dr. Dre beat and it’s all love… Dre wasn’t about the drama; he was about making records.” Nas reflected on the collaboration all these years later.
The tune that ensued was Nas Is Coming. It didn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. The outro as follows:
“Check this out, it’s Nasty Nas, and Dr. Dre
East meets west
That’s how we making it happen
That’s how it goes down for the nine-six
Nas let’s get this money
Let’s get paid
Sit back and watch all these motherfucking clowns out here
Riffing and beefing about this bullshit
Yo while they doing all that
We just gon’ kick back with these honeys
This Cristal and party to the year 2G”
The back end of the record does slightly differ from the first half. Collaborations with JoJo Hailey and Lauryn Hill were tell-tale signs of the new direction this album was taking.
“The strategy became, let’s give him harder records first, so that we can ease him into the radio records. We also tried to make sure that on the harder records, the hooks had enough of a sing-along quality that they were accessible enough to cross over to the mainstream. That was the strategy,” Poke of Trackmasters said in an interview.
It was intriguing that Black Lost Girl, probably the most commercial track on the album, wasn’t chosen to be released as one of the album’s three singles. The melodic hook sung by Joel “JoJo” Hailey was catchy and Nas’ QB version of the Donald Goines book by the same title, seemed to be tailored for radio but fate dictated otherwise.
If I Ruled The World on the other hand, was the lead release. A song Nas admitted took time to come around to, in the face of being called a sell-out, but he eventually came around when Lauryn Hill was invited to work on the project.
“We were one of the pioneers of, ‘Yo, let’s make block party records.’ Back then, DJs used to just put on instrumentals of an R&B record and MCs would rap over it. We had that mentality,” said Poke.
The tune and video took over two months to put together, getting the chorus perfect between the Kurtis Blow sample and Lauryn Hill’s ad-libs. It was the perfect lead single, as Nas pushed a message of freedom, with the shallow arrogance of being a self-proclaimed king, but Nas didn’t take the credit for changing the game.
“B.I.G. changed the playing field [of rap music] in a great way,” he stated in an interview. “You couldn’t be talking about you’re the don of the city and your record is only resonating to a couple of street people. If you’re the don, that means you need Mayor Giuliani dancing to your songs.”
You don’t have to change the game to be king. As a complete album from start to finish It Was Written is a certified classic… no question.
Words by Jack Ball