Genesis really set the tone in '94. Not only did the Wild Style intro instantly put Illmatic in the context of classic New York Hip-Hop, but, with Live at the Barbeque in the background (check how the sample cuts off right before the infamous "snuffin' Jesus" line) and instructions to pull down the shade and take the Hennessy, it also established a style all its own: b-boy stance meets Phillies clutch. When it came time to get It Was Written going, Nas changed it all up. While a million things can be said about what you did or didn't like from IWW, one of the most overlooked pieces of that album was its intro.
It Was Written intro: Top 10 Moments
(by order of appearance)
01.A Change Is Gonna Come
These are perhaps my favorite strings from popular music. Thematically, the idea of "a change", which using Sam Cooke's masterwork implies, appropriately sets up the little two-sided story we're going to see, so, in that sense, it's part of a well laid out plan. It also just sounds good too.
The early organ, met with the crack of a whip and the wail of a saxophone, gives the track a surreal feel. Then the harmonica wane and slight rustle of chains add another interesting musical touch. It's unique all around.
The protagonists referenced on Genesis were Grand Wizard and Mayo. For It Was Written, the leads named are fellow slaves Jimmy Lee and Harriet. And I guess that makes Bandit a crab ass rapper.
04.Get the hounds, we gonna have ourselves a hanging tonight!
Here's something I wondered in the midst of writing this. Nas gets in a fight with presumably an overseer type, and it seems like his resistance might be working. The call for the dogs suggests that he's escaped, with the allusion to a Harriet (Tubman) doing the same, but the assured tone of the overseer, that there will be a hanging tonight, indicates that maybe this resistance will ultimately be put down. One reading would say that he, Nas, the black man, did escape and over time has changed from slave to rap star (hold your irony, please), while a more pessimistic, and maybe then historically accurate, interpretation would argue that on the second-half of the track Nas is instead rising out of the ashes of his ancestor's specific lynching from that night.
05.The Sly, the Slick, and the Wicked
On Nas' first three solo albums, you could easily ask of all the intro tracks, why didn't he rap over those beats? With its strong Lost Generation sample, you could ask that especially here. The Sly, the Slick, and the Wicked was a hit for the short-lived Chicago group back in 1970, but with amplified drums and more top-shelf strings, it still sounds comfortable in '96. Why the hell didn't he rap over this beat?
06.The OG Pause
"Back up in this nigga--the right way, though." Does this predate "no homo"?
07.Regarding the Benjamins
"Son, these niggas look faker than the new hundred dollars. "
08.In the Quran it says Nas, the men. Nisa's the woman
It's take a healthy sized dose of gall to essentially justify your album and even career as though they were the destiny of the gods, or, in this setting, Allah. Referencing the Quran's Sura numbers 4 (An-Nisa, the women) and 114 (An-Nas, the men), Nas does just that though. Coincidentally, An-Nas is the final Sura and asks God for "refuge" (escape) from the evils of the earth.
Call it brave, call it genius, call it bizarre, call it a non-sequitur, whatever, but you have to applaud the very creativity and guts behind starting off your all-important sophomore LP, the one you really need to hit the commercial jackpot this time, with a slave narrative skit. We moved from the old school Subway Theme on Illmatic to the oddity of "yee-hah's and whips cracking in background." And it still went double plat.
An introduction is only as good as what it introduces. In that case, the It Was Written intro is particularly great.
Nas: It Was Written intro
BONUS: The Lost Generation: The Sly, the Slick, and the Wicked
BONUS: Sam Cooke: A Change is Gonna Come