Hardcore hip-hop scholars have long agreed that the ‘90s was the golden age of hip-hop. It was a decade that birthed sounds so different from one another but still very much alike, despite regional influences from the South, East and West.
An argument that leaves those same scholars in disagreement, however, is coming to the consensus on which year in the ‘90s holds the coveted title as the best year in hip-hop. Here is a case for 1996.
Two albums released exactly one week apart that year have hit their 20th birthdays. Though an easy feat to accomplish with regards to time, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt (released June 25) and Nas’s It Was Written (released July 2) have maintained their legacies and have become classics in their own right. Though likely a coincidence at the time, by pitting New York natives Jay and Nas against one another on the charts, the building tension may have also sparked what went on to become one of the greatest rap beefs of all time.
Fresh off of the release of hip-hop’s Holy Grail Illmatic, Nas returned to his roots with the release of his second and most commercially successful album, It Was Written. An ode to his already beloved NYC hood of Queensbridge and a staple in the popular mafioso rap era of the time, Nas’s sophomore release not only birthed the famous moniker "Nas Escobar," it also continued the reign of street intellect he started with his debut.
Nas’s 14-track LP – criticized by many at the time as “too commercial” – reconnected him with producers DJ Premier and L.E.S. but also began his relationship with Dr. Dre and producer duo Trackmasters. Along with solid production, It Was Written also gave the world some of hip-hop’s best features, such as “If I Ruled the World” with Lauryn Hill and short-lived hip-hop super group The Firm’s popular track “Affirmative Action” featuring Foxy Brown, Cormega and AZ.
While Nas's debut album sent him on his way to becoming a hip-hop king alongside The Notorious B.I.G., it was obvious that the platform the “Street Dreams” rapper worked so hard for was on the verge of being challenged with the arrival of Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt. The Marcy Projects rapper – though no stranger to the booming New York hip-hop scene at the time – always had a place in the game, beginning with his friendship with fellow Brooklyn native Jaz-O. Jay Z first came on the scene in the late ‘80s, joining mentor Jaz-O in his “Hawaiian Sophie” video and on “The Originators” with a flow that was the polar opposite to that of his debut album. Reasonable Doubt, an album also heralded in the mafioso rap genre, shined new light to the art of melodic boasting with superior wordplay and ultimately became the preferred sound over his peer Nas. It’s easy to assume Jay Z was the underdog in comparison to Nas at the time, especially with a seemingly unknown record label backing him called Roc-A-Fella. But Jay Z was able to do on his debut what Nas was never able to do with two: get a guest feature with B.I.G, New York’s reigning rap royalty. That accomplishment alone solidified Jay as a viable contender in New York’s hip-hop scene and the budding East vs. West conflict.
The East vs. West beef in 1996 spun a time in hip-hop where excitement turned to worry and music was the guiding force both positively and negatively. In the case of rappers Nas and Jay-Z, it seemed that time carried a sense of camaraderie — first for one’s city and second for each other’s coastal army. Though both parties seemingly stayed out of the conflict in comparison to their more established counterparts Tupac and B.I.G., Nas wasn’t so lucky. In what is now seen as a misunderstanding, Tupac believed Nas’s opening line on his track “The Message” was a diss aimed towards him. The two reconciled before Pac’s death, but not in time for Tupac to edit his Makaveli album.
Though polar opposites in style and flow, Reasonable Doubt and It Was Written contained a plethora of similarities, some blatant and others not as clear cut. The unsung production heroes of the two albums combined melodic instrumentation mixed with a street-like reverie which housed their now-classic lyrics that many still recycle today. While Trackmasters played a major role in It Was Written and Reasonable Doubt had a mix of new and old producers on the back end of the 808, DJ Premier blessed both rap stars with respective heat. Jay came out on top with three Premier tracks: “D’Evils,” “Bring It On” and “Friend or Foe,” but the lone track Premier concocted on It Was Written was the hip-hop masterpiece “I Gave You Power.” The track allowed Nas to take two of his best poetic skills – metaphors and personification – to construct a track from the point of view of a gun, an object he was all too familiar with at the time.
Along with superior production, Reasonable Doubt and It Was Written shared a more blatant entity that only added to the shine of each album: none other than Foxy Brown. The barely-legal at the time Brooklyn emcee provided bars that rivaled her male counterparts. With Brown’s powerful 24 on “Affirmative Action,” she was hands down the champion on the track, beating out her Firm brethren. She then doubled down on doing the same with “Watch Dem N****s.” The raptress also out-rapped Jay Z on his second single “Ain’t No N***a.” Brown was able to not only hold her own with the Roc-A-Fella founder, but her bars made her one of the most sought after rappers of the time.
The narrative to come for these two rap gods in the decade following 1996 could serve as a plotline for an Oscar-winning movie. A story that began with peers who respected one another, with Jay sampling the Queensbridge rapper on “Dead Presidents,” then spun into a beef that sparked now-legendary diss tracks with Jay Z’s “Takeover” and Nas’s “Ether” and finally dissolved into an amicable reconciliation that lead to Nas being signed to Def Jam under the leadership of Jay Z.
It’s hard to compare two great albums with close birthdays to one another, especially from artists so prolific in their own right. Commercially, Nas’s It Was Written won in the effort of album sales, but it was Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt that humanized the art of hustling in relation to the current time and atmosphere. Neither project lacked lyrically from both stars. Their guests’ metaphors and poetic styles are just as mind-blowing now as they were then. So instead of crowning a “better album,” celebrate their imprint on hip-hop’s greatest year.
(Photos from left: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images, Evan Agostini/Getty Images)