Nas has revealed The Notorious B.I.G. played an essential role in inspiring his second studio album, It Was Written.
In an interview with GQ earlier following his first-ever headlining concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Esco reflected on his sophomore LP and his radical change in sound from Illmatic.
Nas explained that he felt pressure to remain an “underground” artist following the acclaim of his seminal 1994 debut, but the mainstream success that Biggie enjoyed — thanks to radio hits like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” — opened his eyes to the importance of crossing over, especially if one wants to lay claim to the Hip Hop crown.
“These dudes didn’t want me to sell records,” the Queensbridge legend said. “They wanted me to stay on an underground level, and I understand what they mean a little bit.
“But at the same time, Biggie made it different, where you can’t just be the hot dude that they liked from New York to Connecticut to Virginia. You got to hit the mainstream. You got to touch the world.”
It Was Written saw Nas go for a more polished sound compared to the raw and rugged vibe of Illmatic. The album was largely produced by the Trackmasters, the production duo of Poke and Tone who had scored hits for the likes of Biggie, LL COOL J and Mary J. Blige.
“I saw the same producers that I had worked with were now giving everybody else beats and then throwing me the same beats,” Nas added, referencing the likes of DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip. “That just wouldn’t do it for me. So I decided to make my rap style a little bit harder for them to follow.
“They’re not going to follow me on a song like, ‘The Message.’ They’re not going to follow me on ‘I Gave You Power.’ They’re definitely not going to follow me on ‘If I Ruled the World.’ I got Lauryn Hill on it. They [didn’t] even fully get the Fugees at the time.”
Nas also worked with Dr. Dre on It Was Written, as well as on his collaborative album with The Firm — which he believes, in turn, might have inspired Biggie’s own sophomore album, Life After Death.
“I feel like that collab [with Dre] brought in the idea, maybe, for things like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Biggie together,” he said, referencing “Notorious Thugs.” “I didn’t invent it, but it made it more of a thing, like, ‘Hey guys, we’re always so standoffish. You come into my market, I come into your market, and let’s have fun. It’s all a family thing.'”
Released in July 1996, It Was Written was a commercial success, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with 270,000 first-week sales. It remains Nas’ best-selling album with over three million copies sold.
Despite the initial mixed reactions, It Was Written helped propel Nas into the mainstream while introducing mafioso rap alongside other pivotal albums such as Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt.