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In 1987, KRS-ONE was a very angry brother. The young upstart rapper had heard MC Shan claiming, in “The Bridge,” that hiphop had started in the Queensbridge projects. But KRS knew that hiphop had originated in his hood, the Bronx. Shan was staking a claim to something that wasn’t his, and KRS didn’t like it at all.
The result was a hiphop classic and one of the phattest dis-records ever recorded, “The Bridge Is Over.” Backed by a haunting keyboard riff, KRS went down the list of the entire Queensbridge crew and dismissed each one like a bad idea. While it cannot be proved that KRS directly caused the fall of Queensbridge, let the record show that after that cut was released, QB became a hiphop wasteland.
But in 1991, from the ashes of the once mighty Queensbridge emerged evidence of a new, flourishing rap nation. Its ambassador, a 17-year-old prodigy. His forum, Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue.” His name, Nasty Nas. And this was not just a name—the kid was truly nasty on the mike. As he put it, “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus.”
“Live at the Barbecue” became a classic posse cut in its own right, but it was Nas’ poetics that stood out on the crowded slate of MCs. For three years after that track’s release the entire rap world waited, its hunger barely suppressed by a 1993 single and rumors of release dates.
The wait ended in 1994 with the release of Nas’ debut album, illmatic. The disc featured hiphop’s best producers this side of Dr. Dre, including Pete Rock, Premier, Q-Tip, and Large Professor. But it was the pure poetry Nas brought to the album that got hiphop fiends open. Cuts like “One Love,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Halftime” made more than a few MCs consider career changes.
But despite the love illmatic received from hard-core hiphop fans, the album plummeted down the charts and ultimately left Nas with no hit to speak of. Now, you can say what you want about keeping it real, but the bottom line is that if you don’t sell records you ain’t keeping nothing, least of all a contract. Ask Steady B and Cool C.
This is probably the main reason Nas’ follow-up effort, It Was Written, has an R&B-ish feel to it. Abandoning the rugged beats that accompanied illmatic, Nas enlisted the Trackmasters to do most of the production. The album attempts to mix R&B tracks with raw lyrics, à la Biggie Smalls, giving it a potentially broad appeal without sacrificing street credibility. But what you end up with is an imbalanced mix of phat-ass lyrics, corny hooks, and ordinary tracks.
Case in point: “Shootouts.” The track is not that whack, just incredibly mediocre. Nas raps, “It’s eyes that seen plenty/Fiends get skinny/As if queens was Jenny/Craig instead of diet plans/It’s crack 200 grams.” His lyrics are tight, and you expect the music to match them. But instead you get a boring, plodding track undeserving of Nas’ lyrics.
“Take It in Blood” is another cut where Nas’ lyrics simply outshine a watered-down track. And again it leaves you wondering why this track was given to Nas, as opposed to some nonrhyming herb. Dr. Dre also turns in a subpar effort on “Nas Is Coming,” thus ruining what could have been a historic union between the best in the East and the best out West.
But let’s be clear here, this is still Nas. On “The Message,” he laces his poetics with a hypnotic loop from Sting’s “Shape of My Heart.” You know Nas’ stilo immediately: “Lemme let ya’ll niggas know one thing/There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one king.” Nas’ emphasis on the last line makes it clear just who the one king is, and his ominous tone is well matched by the eerie guitar loop.
As far as lyrics go, however, the album’s tightest cut is the DJ Premier–produced “I Gave You Power.” The lyrics find Nas depicting a gun’s point of view: “I seen some cold nights and bloody days/They grab me, bullets spray/They use me wrong so I sing this song to this day.”
Nas’ careful attention to every detail of the gun’s existence paints a gloomy picture of black-on-black crime, from a whole different perspective. As the song continues, the gun, tired of being used for senseless killings, decides to sabotage its owner: “He pulled the trigger but I held on/I felt for ’em, knowin’ niggas was waitin’ in hell for ’em/He squeezed harder, I didn’t budge/Sick of the blood/Sick of the thugs/Sick of the wrath of the next man’s grudge.” “Power” is an amazing display of metaphor and personification, and quite frankly the most creative shit I’ve heard in a long time.
On “Affirmative Action,” Nas teams up with AZ, Cormega, and Foxy Brown (collectively known as “The Firm”), rapping over one of the best tracks on the album. Nas raps that “Life’s a bitch, but God forbid the bitch divorce me.” The track features a funky bass line and a guitar riff that reminds you of some old wild-west-desperado shit. But it’s the flow of Nas’ lyrics that shines: “The projects/Is talkin’ that somebody-gotta-die shit/It’s logic/As long as it’s nobody that’s from my clique.”
If It Was Written had been Nas’ debut album and illmatic had been his second, this review would look a lot different. But Nas has the misfortune of having to follow an album that many of us are still pumping on a daily. Any other artist would be doomed to disappoint. But a close listen to Nas’ lyrics on It Was Written reveals an album that could have been. As far as mike skills go, Nas is sharper than he was before. He forges a verbal alloy of metaphor and detail into a lyrical blade that’s as sharp as anybody’s.
But It Was Written has two major problems that hamper its genius. First is Nas’ limited subject range. Despite the knowledge manifested on “Black Girl Lost,” “I Gave You Power,” and “If I Ruled the World,” Nas consistently contradicts himself. The misogyny and violence-glorification that saturates his lyrics limit him as an artist. Nas is the most gifted MC of his generation, but his content often nullifies even the tightest of his lyrics. He becomes the mad scientist whose intellect you have to be awed by, but whose use of it constantly disgusts you.
The second problem is in the production. Hiphop heads will not appreciate the Trackmasters’ obvious attempt to sell records by using soft, almost pop backing tracks. EPMD, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang, and Tribe, along with countless others, have proved that raw beats and straight lyrics can sell records.
As far as hiphop goes, It Was Written is one of the dopest albums released this summer. But as far as Nas goes, and what he is capable of, it is a disappointment. Nas is only a few albums away from joining the company of rap gods like KRS-ONE, Chuck D, Rakim, and Run-DMC. But if he is ever to become lyrically divine, then he has to abandon backward lyrics and predictable commercial beats. This is written.CP