Twenty-five years ago today, Queensbridge-based rapper Nas released the first single from his highly-anticipated second album, It Was Written. It had been two years since the release of his groundbreaking debut album Illmatic, which had received critical praise and garnered the attention of hip-hop fans but had not produced a commercially viable hit that would generate record sales. Then again, Illmatic wasn’t meant to be a pop album but rather a showcase of this new artist’s creative ingenuity and lyrical ability.
With It Was Written, Columbia Records wanted a marketable single for Nas without compromising his integrity as a storyteller and street poet. By early 1996, the label, not well-known for producing rap music at the time, achieved worldwide success in the genre thanks to the supergroup Fugees — comprised of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras — as their final studio album The Score peaked at #1 on the Billboard Top 200, selling 22 million copies worldwide (making it one of the best-selling albums in history) and earning them two Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Killing Me Softly”). Though the trio broke up shortly following the album’s release, all three members signed individual deals with Columbia and began working on solo projects.
While Hill would shortly begin work on her own soon-to-be-be seminal album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, some maestro at the record company — or perhaps Nas himself — had the wise idea of featuring Hill on his next album, set to release less than six months after the Fugees’ instant masterpiece. The pairing of the two artists was a no-brainer: both were East Coast-centric artists and didn’t shy away from exploring the realities of their time, from street-level perspectives to personal strife.
Released on June 4, 1996, the Trackmasters-produced “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” — based on the Kurtis Blow song of the same name released eleven years earlier — brought modern activism to the mainstream, discussing racial inequality, injustices within the prison system, poverty, classism, and the need for reform. The song quickly became a hit on radio and on MTV, where a Hype Williams-directed music video — featuring scenes with Nas and Lauryn Hill on a flatbed truck in Times Square juxtaposed with the rapper among friends in his childhood Queensbridge Projects — played on rotation, garnering even wider attention and earning the song a Grammy Award nomination.
Fans in the hip-hop community criticized Nas for bowing to the pressures of appealing to a wider audience but the single proved its promotional worth. Less than one month later, It Was Written debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 and went on to earn double-platinum status, making it Nas’s biggest-selling album to date.
Nas has gone on to record ten more solo studio albums, most to critical acclaim but never again as successful. However, his body of work and longevity affirms his place in hip-hop history. Hill only released one album, considered one of the greatest of all time, selling 12 million copies worldwide and winning five Grammy Awards, but that’s all she needed to leave her indelible mark.
A quarter century later, “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” continues to reverberate throughout our culture, evoking a message of change and hope that still resonates today. ❖