Welcome to volume two of the Song Battle series, where we take two classic hip hop albums and pit them against each other, song for song.
In volume one, we took Raekwon’s hugely influential The Purple Tape and put it up against Biggie’s seminal debut. Who won that battle? You’ll just have to read it here. For this volume, we have the beginnings of the greatest hip hop rivalry of all time – the legendary Jay-Z vs. Nas battle (yes, I put this over Pac vs. Big, or any other hip hop beef in history.
Coming into ’96, Nas had his eyes firmly on the pop charts with his sophomore effort. While his debut was widely acclaimed as one of the best hip hop albums of all time when it dropped, Illmatic only sold 59,000 in its first week while his main rival, The Notorious B.I.G. managed to crack double platinum status with Ready to Die. It was time to switch up the formula.
In the midst of the Nas vs. Biggie situation, Jay-Z was getting ready to make waves with Reasonable Doubt, an album he’d been recording for the past couple of years. With no major labels interested in signing the Brooklyn rapper, Jay launched Roc-A-Fella with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and struck a deal with Priority Records to distribute the album.
And with that, the seeds of their epic 2001 confrontation would be sown in these two albums. Nas made sure to send warning shots to any up-and-coming rappers who thought they might have a crack at the throne; while Hov quickly positioned himself as a major force in New York.
Note: both albums line up almost perfectly – It Was Written has 14 tracks with one intro, so we removed “Cashmere Thoughts” from Reasonable Doubt to match the amount of tracks.
Alright, let’s get into it, Beats, Rhymes & Lists presents the second volume of the Song Battle series: Reasonable Doubt vs. It Was Written, where two of the greatest rappers ever go head-to-head.
“Can’t Knock the Hustle” vs. “The Message”
You couldn’t have asked for a better intro into the mind of Jay-Z than “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” Over banging, luxury production courtesy of Knobody and a timeless Mary J. Blige hook, Hov drops classic hustler gems that still ring true to this day. But “The Message” is a top five Nas track of all time; it’s when the rapper transformed from a Queensbridge wordsmith scribbling into his notepad into the King of New York. Nas Escobar takes this one.
Reasonable Doubt = 0, It Was Written = 1
“Politics as Usual” vs. “Street Dreams”
It doesn’t get any smoother than “Politics as Usual”, Jay effortlessly spitting game over a shiny Ski beat, but I’m going to have to give this one to “Street Dreams”. I know it must have been jarring for listeners to go from Illmatic to pink suit Nas Escobar, but over 20 years later, this track has aged so well. Another round for Nasir Jones.
Reasonable Doubt = 0, It Was Written = 2
“Brooklyn’s Finest” vs. “I Gave You Power”
This might be the toughest battle on this list. Jay-Z links up with his fellow Brooklyn rapper, Biggie Smalls (who delivers one of the greatest guest appearances ever), for an all-time great back-and-forth. But “I Gave You Power” is Nas on his pure genius writing game, rapping from the perspective of a gun, over a goddamn DJ Premier beat. “Brooklyn’s Finest” edges it, but just by the slightest of margins.
Reasonable Doubt = 1, It Was Written = 2
“Dead Presidents II” vs. “Watch Dem Niggas”
Easy win for Jay-Z. “Dead Presidents II” isn’t just one of the best songs on Reasonable Doubt, it’s a top five Hov record of all time, and no one would be mad if you put this at number one. “Watch Dem Niggas” is fine, but that’s as far as I go with it. Another win for Jay.
Reasonable Doubt = 2, It Was Written = 2
“Feelin’ It” vs. “Take It in Blood”
Fun fact: “Take It in Blood” was produced by Live Squad, which was made up of Stretch, Majesty and DJ K-Low. You’ll recognise Stretch as Tupac’s friend-turned-enemy, and he had actually just dropped Nas off at his house after a recording session on the night of his murder. I’m going to give Reasonable Doubt this one – “Feelin’ It” is another ultra-smooth Ski production with classic Hov bars over it.
Reasonable Doubt = 3, It Was Written = 2
“D’Evils” vs. “Nas Is Coming”
This one’s a no brainer. Nas may have been the first New York rapper to collaborate with Dr. Dre, but the result did not live up to expectation. The beat is underwhelming, the hook is horrible, just an overall forgettable song. Meanwhile, “D’Evils” is one of Hov’s most personal and heartfelt songs ever – he even picked the vocal scratches on the record for DJ Premier to use.
Reasonable Doubt = 4, It Was Written = 2
“22 Two’s” vs. “Affirmative Action”
“22 Two’s” is dope as shit, but “Affirmative Action” is one of the greatest posse cuts in hip hop history. The way the drums kick in mid-way through AZ’s verse is pure musical perfection.
Reasonable Doubt = 4, It Was Written = 3
“Can I Live” vs. “The Set Up”
You can never go wrong with Nas and Mobb Deep. Havoc laces the Illmatic one with a grimy, nightmare of a beat, to balance out all the flossing done earlier on the album, while Nas delivers murderous verses. “Can I Live” though, it’s a top 10 Hov record. Got to give this round to Jay-Z.
Reasonable Doubt = 5, It Was Written = 3
“Ain’t No Nigga” vs. “Black Girl Lost”
Easy Jay win. “Black Girl Lost” is one of the worse songs in Nas’ catalogue, while “Ain’t No Nigga” is a bonafide classic hit that helped Roc-A-Fella secure a partnership deal with Def Jam.
Reasonable Doubt = 6, It Was Written = 3
“Friend or Foe” vs. “Suspect”
“Friend or Foe” is Jay-Z at his storytelling best, and paired with a thrilling Premier production, it feels like it’s straight out of a classic mob movie. The way Hov raps his lyrics like an actual conversation (“You’re twitchin’, don’t do that, you makin’ me nervous”), and the double entendres he uses (“You draw, better be Picasso—you know, the best”), it’s just perfect.
Reasonable Doubt = 7, It Was Written = 3
“Coming of Age” vs. “Shootouts”
Hip hop’s greatest weed carrier of all time, Memphis Bleek, makes his debut appearance as Hov’s protege on “Coming of Age.” It’s a great record and was an example of art imitating life, as Bleek really was that Marcy Brooklyn kid looking up to Hov. But I’ve got a real soft spot for “Shootouts” so this is going to be a Nas win.
Reasonable Doubt = 7, It Was Written = 4
“Bring It On” vs. “Live Nigga Rap”
This is the battle of crews. In one corner, you’ve got Jay-Z accompanied by Jaz-O and Sauce Money for “Bring It On”, while you’ve got Queensbridge in the house on “Live Nigga Rap.” They’re both great records but I’m a Mobb Deep stan so there’s no competition. Side note: According to Damon, Nas and AZ were supposed to be on “Bring It On” but they flaked.
Reasonable Doubt = 7, It Was Written = 5
“Regrets” vs. “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)”
“Regrets” is a beautiful closing track and started the timeless Jay-Z tradition of ending his album with introspection. But “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” features Nas and Lauryn Hill together on a track. Need I say more? Nas takes it.
Reasonable Doubt = 7, It Was Written = 6
Result: This was a great, close battle. Nas had some amazing moments, opening up and closing on a strong note, but Hov was just overall more consistent and swept up those middle rounds. Album vs. album, Reasonable Doubt is just a stronger record than It Was Written. But both are classics, so it’s a win for hip hop!