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The Butterfly Effect: “Affirmative Action,” The Firm’s gangster rap classic

The song that best embodies Nas’s imaginative ethos plays like a riveting gangland thriller

The rapper Nas has built a storied career for himself over the course of nearly three decades. In 1994, he entered the East Coast hip-hop scene with his debut album “Illmatic,” which remains a contender for the best rap album of all time. His followup project, “It Was Written,” launched him to commercial stardom two years later, after which he bested Jay-Z in a 2000s rap war, etching his name into music history — “it was written” indeed. Nas has continued putting out strong lyrical albums into the present day, earning a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album in 2020.

Still, it’s his ‘90s classics that live on in the hearts and minds of old-school hip-hop enthusiasts. A name like “It Was Written” purposefully casts a prophetic shadow, evoking visuals of ancient legends and long-gone empires — adding to the mythos, Nas lyrically styles himself the Pablo Escobar of Queens, drawing on the legacy of Colombia’s infamous drug lord. Despite being a collaborative track between Nas and fellow NYC-born rappers, the song “Affirmative Action” best embodies this imaginative ethos.

“Affirmative Action” is a posse cut, meaning it brings together four or more rappers to duke it out for the best performance — in this case, Nas, AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown, who was just 16 at the time. Though the song appears on Nas’ “It Was Written,” it also served to debut the rappers’ eventual hip-hop supergroup, called “The Firm.” AZ makes the first appearance on the track, but does so patiently, letting the instrumental set the mood. 

The production is austere but effective, guiding the listener through a surprising journey before the beat even drops. The ping-ponging, plucked chord and cartoonish whistle sounds that open “Affirmative Action” head fake towards an air of levity. But the ensuing choir sample, reminiscent of Gregorian monk rituals, plunges the song into a darker atmosphere — a suspicion confirmed when AZ first speaks.

“N— don't understand the four devils,” he laments over a creepy mandolin tune that one review lauded as “sounding straight out of Goodfellas.” The listener expects a diverse array of offenses to follow, perhaps along the lines of the Bible’s seven cardinal sins. Instead, AZ explains the four devils as “lust, envy, hate, jealousy,” revealing a single-minded fixation on betrayal — the way he says “jealousy” drips with special revulsion.

Soft wind, rustling leaves and bird chirps can be heard in the distance, placing the listener in the streets of New York and unmasking AZ’s target as none other than the city’s rival gangster rappers. AZ then unleashes an addictive cadence and rhyme scheme. 

“Sneak attack, the new cats in rap worth top dollar / In fact, touch mine’s and I'll react like a Rottweiler,” he warns, satisfyingly timing the last word with the song’s first snare hit. 

With a groovy kick-snare pattern buoying him, AZ uses the rest of his verse to portray himself as a ruthless but well-connected warlord. The next rapper, Cormega, bolts in about a minute and a half into the song. He largely matches AZ’s delivery and themes, while injecting specific references to Desert Eagle firearms and Dominican cocaine cartels. 

It isn’t until Nas’ verse that a real stylistic change occurs. Nas projects a voice of calm, casually relating the perks of being an Escobar-tier drug kingpin, like Cuban cigars and cash with which to bribe federal agents. He raps, “I shine jewelry, sippin’ on crushed grapes, we lust papes” — whereas AZ and Cormega are portrayed running the streets, Nas is kicking back, sipping wine and taking stock of his kingdom. 

Finally, it’s Foxy Brown’s turn on the mic, in which she vindicates a reviewer’s remark that if her male contemporaries typify New York City mobsters, “then Foxy represents the mob wife that is even more sinister.” 

On “Affirmative Action,” Foxy exudes a self-assured swagger, seemingly unintimidated by the pressures of a male-dominated industry. Her lyrics veer from the cryptic — including the earworm “they praise Allah with visions of Gandhi” — to the scrupulous, at one point documenting the mathematics of coke-dealing in mind-boggling detail. The latter initiative polarized critics upon release and remains hotly debated — Foxy’s numbers are hard to follow, to put it charitably — but her audacity makes the performance a close second to AZ’s. 

Even as the four verses vary in style, the musical foundation underlying “Affirmative Action” remains relatively constant, melding a straightforward bassline and drum pattern with a signature melody that twangs throughout. The intriguing instrumental works in tandem with The Firm’s storytelling to realize the song’s ambition as a mythical battle for dominance over New York’s streets — beginning to end, it plays like a riveting gangland thriller. 

“It Was Written” has an enduring presence in battle rap. The album’s title was invoked in an infamous lyric by Pusha-T — “it was written like Nas, but it came from Quentin” — dissing Drake for allegedly using a ghostwriter. The mandolin sequence on “Affirmative Action” was in turn reimagined as a sinister guitar melody for Drake’s “Mob Ties,” tapping into the former song’s mafioso themes.

Despite disbanding the group in the late ‘90s, the members of The Firm reunited on Nas's 2020 album “King's Disease'' for the track "Full Circle." Aptly named, the song closes with a shout out to their formative endeavor and “It Was Written” gem: “Classic s—, that's affirmative.”

“The Butterfly Effect” is a column that explores the significance of selected hip-hop releases from a cultural and musical lens.