Competition has always played a big role in hip hop. Battle rhymes, diss songs, trying to “murder” someone on their own tracks, it’s all in the spirit of competition.
But in the mid-90s, the competition in New York was especially heavy. Let’s think about the rappers were coming up at that time – you had Nas and Big both releasing landmark debuts in ’94, Mobb Deep damn bringing all of Queensbridge wherever they went, Raekwon with The Purple Tape and the rest of Wu-Tang by his side. Half of the rappers on our greatest of all time list damn near came on the ’90s East Coast.
It seemed as though a new rapper was making their claim for the throne every other day. So when it came time for Nas to drop his highly anticipated sophomore record, he made sure to let everyone know who was the rightful king of New York.
Fake thug, no love, you get the slug, CB4 Gusto Your luck low, I didn't know 'til I was drunk though You freak ni**as played out, get fucked and ate out Prostitute turned bitch, I got the gauge out 96 ways I made out, Montana way The Good F-E-L-L-A, verbal AK spray Dipped attache, jump out the Range, empty out the ashtray A glass of 'Zé make a man Cassius Clay Red dot plots, murder schemes 32 shotguns, regulate with my dunns 17 rocks gleam from one ring They let me let y'all ni**as know one thing There's one life, one love, so there can only be one King The highlights of livin', Vegas-style, roll dice in linen Antera spinnin' on millenniums 20 G bets I'm winnin' 'em, threats I'm sendin' 'em Lex with TV sets the minimum, ill sex adrenaline Party with villains, a case of Demi-Sec To chase the Henny, wet any clique with the semi TEC Who want it? Diamonds I flaunt it Chickenheads flock I lace 'em, fried broiled with basil taste 'em Crack the legs way out of formation It's horizontal how I have 'em fuckin' me in the Benz wagon Can it be Vanity from Last Dragon? Grab your gun, it's on though Shit is grimy, real ni**as buck in broad daylight With the broke MAC that won't spray right Don't give a fuck who they hit as long as the drama's lit Yo, overnight thugs bug ‘cause they ain't promised shit Hungry-ass hooligans stay on that piranha shit Nas - "The Message"
“There were lots of new rappers in the game and lots of us were making noise,” Nas later told Complex in an interview about the making of It Was Written. “You had Jay Z, Mobb Deep, Raekwon. 2Pac was going crazy. Everybody was gunning for position. That was my feeling on “The Message” like, ‘Yo, back up, everybody.'”
While Nas was definitely gunning for his main rival, Big, with the line, “There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King” as one example, he also had his eyes on the up-and-coming Jay Z, who was starting to make his claim for the crown.
“There was some undertones with him taking little jabs at other rappers in that record,” Tone of the Trackmasters told Complex. “The ‘Lex with TV sets, the mininum,’ that line was directed right at Jay-Z. I’ll say it since they’re friends now. Jay was fronting hard with the Lexus, at the time, in his videos and there was a little rivalry brewing. It hadn’t really started yet, but it was brewing.”
Nas: I saw Jay Z driving a Lexus with the TVs in it. I got rid of my Lexus at that point and I was looking for the next best thing. So that line— “Lex with TV sets, the minimum”—wasn’t a shot at Jay but he inspired that line.The Making of Nas’ ‘It Was Written’ | Complex
While Nas wasn’t even thinking about anyone outside of New York when he made the song, it was released during the height of the East Coast–West Coast which led to Pac mistakenly thinking that Nas was going at him as well.
In a 2008 interview, Nas revealed that “the first lines all the way to ‘One life, one love, there can only be one king'” was aimed at Biggie, and that “Tupac was not even on my radar for going at him.” This whole situation eventually led to the infamous Bryant Park confrontation between Pac and Nas during the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards.