Retrospective Roundtable: Illmatic vs It Was Written

This question has come up time and time again: which Nas album is better? Illmatic or It Was Written? Today, at the DAR Roundtable, I sit with @MDizzle9000, @SpeedOnTheBeat, and @Maximosis to talk about these two albums and try to decide which album is better. Do we truly reach a conclusion as a collective? Or are these albums too close to call it? Let's get into it....

When Illmatic first dropped in 1994, it was critically acclaimed and catapulted the name Nas to the top of everyone's lyricist lists. Since then, Illmatic is widely viewed by many as the best hip hop album of all time. The funny thing about this is that, to many of Nas' fans, it's not even his best album. While it was considered "too commercial" or a let down at the time, Nas' sophomore effort "It Was Written" has aged like fine wine hidden in a filthy Queensbridge projects laundry room. The question of which album is truly better is a tricky one.
Which album do I think is better? Well that depends on the day of the week, what I had for breakfast, the type of weed I smoked that day and who I last made love to. The point is, its too damn difficult to decide. Illmatic is a near perfect example of a sound that defines hip hop in its purest form. Nas' raw and unmatched lyricism speaking only on what he knew and where he's from blended with production from so many greats of the era(Preem, Large Professor, Q-tip etc.) created an untouchable record. From the gritty "NY State of mind" to the beautiful "It Ain't Hard to Tell", Nas came out the gate sounding like the greatest of all time. Even the legends that came before Nas wanted to duplicate this(check Kool G Rap's 4,5,6 album), but it was impossible. With apologies to Snoop and 50, llmatic was the greatest first impression in hip hop history.

The thing about It was Written? It's everything that Illmatic isn't! A more modern and versatile Nas shows up with more detailed storytelling and imagery, heard on tracks like "suspect" and "the set up" while redifining metaphor in the genre with "I Gave You Power". "If I Ruled the world" and even "Street Dreams" were dope singles that still bang to this day in any setting. Nas began to show a more conscious and introspective side on "Black Girl Lost", while experimenting with different sounds, like on the smooth Dr.Dre produced "Nas is Coming"(pause on the title AND intro of the song). It Was Written, to me, is Nas as a more complete hip hop artist and a better preview of who he would be for the rest of his legendary career.

While "It Was Written" was criticized upon initial release, I feel that the only problem with the album to some is that it just wasnt enough like Illmatic. Illmatic was so great that people, to this day even, want another one! All of Nas albums are disappointments when the scale is "Is it as good as Illmatic?" or "Does it sound like Illmatic?". If Nas had kept making Illmatic, his career and success probably would have been stuck in the early 90s, along with Illmatic. Nas grew to be the greatest rapper of all time(my opinion and many others down with TeamDAR, so fuck you) not only because of the pure lyrical skill skill we witnessed on Illmatic, but also because of the storytelling, wisdom, songwriting and overall versatility we discovered with "It Was Written". Both records are classic 10/10 works of art, and only a part of the greatest discography in Hip Hop.

Neither album, to me, is better than the other. It just becomes about accessibility. Let's think about it for real. How many fairweather (and some devoted) Nas fans can just pull a random Illmatic quote from thin air. Now, compare that to how many people, from Lauryn Hill's opening vocalizing, know "If I Ruled the World." It Was Written is, essentially, Illmatic: The Top 40 Edition.

This is a hard, hard question to answer. I think there are many out there who probably like It Was Written more then Illmatic, But, I just can't say that It Was Written was a better album. Nas grew a lot as an artist for the It Was Written album, when it came to lyrics and technique. It Was Written, I feel, was a little ahead of Illmatic, as it seemed like he went from awesome new artist to seasoned vet in that time. But in terms of feel, originality, message, and energy, Illmatic takes the cake for me. There is a big difference between writing great lyrics and writing great songs.

Max is right, there are some people that like It Was Written more than Illmatic. I'm one of them. I think It Was Written is a better album than Illmatic and its my favorite Nas album, as well as one of my top 3 all-time favorite albums. I truly believe Nas is the greatest rapper of all time, and he displayed why on It Was Written. While Illmatic is 100% solid hip hop to the core, I've always felt that Nas didn't fully display his creativity on that album. Illmatic was the introduction to Nas. From the hard thump of "N.Y. State Of Mind", to the smooth soul of "Memory Lane", to the dope rhythm of "It Ain't Hard To Tell", Illmatic gave you an idea of Nas was, his background and showed you that he was an elite lyricist. Illmatic is undoubtedly a classic. As with most legends, people tend to look at your first and say its your best because you don't duplicate it. In most cases, that's a false statement. Your first is an album that you had all of your life to create and all the energy to put in to it, but as an artist, your creativity and skill will evolve and hopefully grow. It Was Written was that evolution.

Aside from the strange, Dr. Dre assisted "Nas Is Coming", that album is flawless. And even "Nas Is Coming" isn't a bad song, just has a weak hook. Nas shines on "I Gave You Power", which takes you through the life of a gun personified. He coasts on "Watch Dem Niggas", which is an anthem of sorts, and he goes for the kill on "Take It In Blood". He spits heat alongside The Firm on "Affirmative Action", then talks about the queens who have strayed on "Black Girl Lost", which personally connects with me and I'm sure any man who has watched a woman devalue herself or forget her worth. What Nas did on It Was Written was show you how an artist who connects on his debut, can go beyond for his sophomore. While it is close, I can truly say It Was Written is better than Illmatic. That doesn't change for me. On any day. It Was Written is one of the greatest hip hop albums ever. As is Illmatic. It Was Written just elevated higher on nearly all levels(Illmatic's production might be slightly more cohesive). Two classics out the gate proved why Nas is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest.



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