The Album That Turned Nas Into A Star Turns 25

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The legendary MC’s debut was both the greatest rap album of all time and a commercial flop. His legacy hung on the success of his second and eventually best-selling album It Was Written. For its 25th anniversary, we revisit how Queensbridge’s finest went from nasty to number one.

In the summer of 1996 Nasir Jones was the greatest rapper alive. After releasing a debut album two years prior that many a rap fan still consider perfection, he went on a two-year run of carefully selected guest appearances that were anticipated as rare collectors items. Providing the climax for grade A rap classics like Mobb Deep’s “Eye For An Eye” and Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse” continued the progressive work of Illmatic: changing the way MCs wrote. Nas singlehandedly raised the stock on lyricism. He bypassed rap’s original challenge of sewing together palpable rhyme couplets and set a new gold standard for masters of ceremony. The new bloodsport was reporting nonfiction — specifically the dangers and sexy of street life in Black America — while using the most vivid poetry as film. Nas’s vocabulary has always been as creative as it is studious. His flow streams with multi-syllabic marriages. On his debut, his mind belied his teen years. Listeners were traveled to lands that the author hadn’t yet stepped suede Timbaland atop. The intricacy of Nas’s storytelling hadn’t been heard since the hay day of Slick Rick and Kool G. Rap. The last MC to revolutionize rhyme-writing the way Nas did in 1994 was Rakim in 1986.

But Nas didn’t want to be Rakim nor Kool G Rap — GOAT MC considerations who were only platinum on street corners. For all of Illmatic’s acclaim within the culture of hip-hop (in 1994, The Source magazine crowned the album with 5 Mics: a classic), it wasn’t a commercial success. By 1996, it still hadn’t sold gold. The King of NY throne was manned by the Notorious B.I.G. The Bad Boy franchise possessed a perfect balance of granite-hard street cred and pop appeal with instant hits like “Big Poppa” and the “One More Chance remix” that were equally respected and purchased. Nas’s music career depended on his second album performing the same Libra act.

The problem was 21-year-old Nas had no idea how to make a commercial album. In fact, the struggle to align radio-friendly and rap purity congruence followed “God’s Son” for much of his exalted career. This is where the legend of Steve Stoute was born. Before Stoute — also a Queens native — willed himself into the title of hip-hop’s greatest marketer, he was a former road manager for House Party-famed rap duo Kid-N-Play. By the mid-90’s he had gained a reputation as someone with a keen radar for talent who knew how to navigate the music industry’s choppy waters. He also managed hip-hop’s first go-to production duo for radio love, the Trackmasters. He knew the anatomy of a hit record.

What Steve Stoute didn’t know was the streets. So when he pulled up to the world’s largest projects looking for its local star, he was greeted by the pistol of Nas’s younger and wilder brother, Jungle. In the mid-nineties, this was Nas’s environment. The wunderkind had one Nike in the drug and gun-infested back blocks and the other in the music business. Stoute wanted him paid as high as he was lyrically ranked. Nas had no desire to be anything but a project kid. He just wanted the world to hear about Queensbridge. The compromise between the two geniuses birthed It Was Written and Nas the superstar.

Although, the opus’s modus operandi was to turn Nasir Jones into a household name, the now triple platinum classic is far more gangster than one expected from an album executive produced by Stoute and the Trackmasters. Building off of the outstanding storytelling on Illmatic’s “One Love,” on It Was Written, Nas doubled down on his cinematic writing and kept the lyrical genius high with intricate tales which still ring like audio novella today.

While a Nas song featuring Lauryn Hill over a classic Whodini sample sounds like a global smash today, its initial reception by hip-hop purists was Luke warm. In 1996, hip-hop’s fear was that the best lyricist of the early 90’s would be watered down before he became the greatest rapper.

Although a teenage Nas conceived his debut classic with impeccable creations like “The World Is Yours” and “Memory Lane,” the album is musically rigid. Its biggest flaw is also its most significant attribute: it’s pure (exceptional) beats and (exceptional) rhymes. There were no R&B guests. Listeners didn’t receive so much as syllable from a female’s voice. Yet, there is no commercial music success without consumers that are white or women.

Enter “If I Ruled The World,” perhaps the most important song of Nas’s career. The mammoth pressure for the album to succeed was first placed on its first single. While a Nas song featuring Lauryn Hill over a classic Whodini sample sounds like a global smash today, its initial reception by hip-hop purists was Luke warm. In 1996, hip-hop’s fear was that the best lyricist of the early 90’s would be watered down before he became the greatest rapper.

Steve Stoute wouldn’t let that happen. Where most executives market to the audience or region indifferent to or unaware of their artist, Stoute focused on assuring NYC that rap’s King of Queens was as Queensbridge as he was in ’94. His smartest move was adding a clip of the album’s lead track “The Message” — a master class of rap lyricism — to the top of the “If I Ruled The World” video. Doubters were immediately disarmed before any shot attempts at the single could be taken.

Although the second single “Street Dreams” was also deployed to bring Nas radio success, it exhibited the nasty one’s maturation beyond being a rapper, His wings were spreading as a music artist. Twenty five years ago, rappers whose content was informed by and made for the streets rarely sung their hooks. There certainly wasn’t a high volume of MCs manipulating classic hooks from British pop acts. Nas did exactly that, crooning as the voice of drug dealer aspiration.

It Was Written also gave us the first Nas song with the opposite gender as a subject. “Black Girl Lost” is a wonderful groove featuring Jo Jo, the legendary R&B quartet Jodeci’s best voice. The track not only paints ghetto soap opera visuals of harlots and toxic female lovers, it offers empathy to hard working sistas trying to earn income and scholastic degree in a racist and sexist America. If “Street Dreams” showcased Nas’s growth as a creative, “Black Girl Lost” spoke for a young poet entering manhood.

What Nas and co. gave the world with It Was Written was an album that remained true to its predecessor’s roots while blooming its creator bigger and brighter. It finally delivered Nas and Queensbridge its first platinum plaque. It also motivated the game’s best to step their tall game even further up. A year later, on his sophomore magnum opus, B.I.G. was inspired to become the Hitchcock of rap and sing full ballads at Playa Haters. Nas would’ve been mentioned in Mr. Wallace’s HOF speech.

While Jay-Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt is still 1996’s best hip-hop album, It Was Written was the bigger album. For the sake of scorekeeping, Nas’s first and second album both trump when matched against Jay’s. It’s no wonder why Hov wanted Nas and Biggie on his first album––he knew he had to stand next to the best in order to be considered competition. Alas, Nasir never obliged any of Jay’s invitations. But that’s the beginning of a whole other story.

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