Literary skill is not the prime attribute of most hardcore rappers; these days the main attraction in hip-hop seems to be authenticity, not articulation. So the second album from Nas is frustrating. It Was Written proves that this New York native from the borough of Queens possesses a phenomenal way with words and some savvy musical sense. It’s a pity that he doesn’t put his verbal dexterity and powers of observation to better use.
“If I Ruled the World,” Nas’ current hit single, is a less-than-representative example of his talents. It’s more of a crossover con job. Amid the synth sweetening and the song’s catchy chorus, Nas tips his hand and reveals his true vision: a place where we can raise our children in peace; marijuana is legal; cocaine comes uncut, so we can make more money from it; and cops can’t go undercover to make a bust. The connections — and contradictions — may seem obvious, but Nas doesn’t acknowledge any discrepancies. His self-serving dream world is the stuff of others’ nightmares.
No doubt Nas would shrug off the gangsta tag and claim that he’s just telling it like it is. Certainly he strikes a note of creepy realism in his stories of heavyweight dealing and literally cutthroat competition. “The Set Up,” “Shootouts” and “Affirmative Action” (which preaches a different kind of equal opportunity) are chilling in their how-many-grams-to-a-kilo detail and utter amorality. On “Watch Dem Niggas,” Nas cites as inspirations both the boxing coach Cus D’Amato and the murderous drug lord Pablo Escobar. What is this guy thinking?
Like his 1994 debut, Illmatic, It Was Written features Nas in the company of several producers, but the results too often blur into a homogeneous, half-funky soup. But there are exceptions. When Dr. Dre brings his light studio touch and backup vocals to the throwaway boast “Nas Is Coming,” it comes as a relief from all the grim street scenarios. Gang Starr’s DJ Premier lays down a spooky, jazz-fusion groove on “I Gave You Power,” and this time, Nas responds with a mind-blowing sustained metaphor, speaking as the voice of a gun. This extraordinary view of casual violence measures the exact dimensions of a vicious circle: “I might have took your first child, scarred your life, crippled your style/I gave you power/I made you buck wild.”
That makes the rest of It Was Written sound lazy and automatic — just the latest blatant example of trashy tough-guy talk. When Nas finally aligns his mind with his mouth, he’ll truly be dangerous.