When Nas released his debut album Illmatic in 1994, it became an instant classic and established him as one of the most promising MCs coming up in hip hop. Even before the album dropped, people were hailing him as the second coming of Rakim.
But with success came pressure. With a debut album that has since gone down as one of the greatest hip hop albums ever, Nas new that his sophomore project had to have to same sort of impact if he wanted to cement his legacy in the game. Enter The Notorious B.I.G.
Upon dropping his debut album, Ready to Die, a few months after Illmatic, Biggie almost singlehandedly shifted the spotlight from the West Coast – which was blowing up with the success of Dre and Snoop – back to the New York hip hop scene. East Coast acts like Nas and Wu-Tang may have had the hip hop heads in their pockets, but sales-wise, Biggie was going platinum with heavy rotation on the radio.
The success of Big’s debut also had a direct impact on Nas’ own career trajectory and artistic direction. As he worked on his sophomore album, It Was Written, he felt pressure to live up to the commercial success of Ready to Die. In an interview with GQ, he reflected on how Biggie’s mainstream appeal changed the game for New York rappers, saying “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.”
The Queensbridge MC was also motivated to go with a different sound from Illmatic as a way to keep his competition on their toes. “I saw the same producers that I had worked with were now giving everybody else beats and then throwing me the same beats,” he explained to GQ. “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.'”
The result was Nas’ first number one album, It Was Written. Debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 chart with 270,000 copies sold in its first week, the album solidified Nas’s position as a major player in the rap industry. It Was Written also produced successful singles, with “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” reaching #15 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, #17 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart and #53 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The second single “Street Dreams” hit #1 on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart, as well as #1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, while it peaked at #18 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and #27 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Nas: B.I.G. changed the playing field [of rap music] in a great way. You couldn’t be talking about you’re the don of the city and your record is only resonating to a couple of street people. If you’re the don, that means you need Mayor Giuliani dancing to your songs. When I’m on the radio, I’m going to have you singing along, “I’d open every cell in Attica, send ‘em to Africa,” and “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassing.” That should be mainstream, that shouldn’t just be in the streets. The whole world should hear my voice, hear my point of view in my street language. We turned the lights on.The Making of Nas’ ‘It Was Written’ | Complex