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It Was Written is the second studio album by American hip hop rapper Nas, released July 2, 1996 on Columbia Records in the United States, Canada, and continental Europe. It also featured distribution in the United Kingdom through Simply Vinyl Records. Primarily produced by the production team Trackmasters, the album served as a departure for Nas from the raw, underground tone of his critically acclaimed debut album, Illmatic (1994), towards a more mainstream sound. As a result, It Was Written features a more polished production and an R&B influence than Illmatic, accompanied by a mafioso concept and lyrical themes. In addition to its several guest artists, the album also marked the first appearance of Nas's short-lived supergroup The Firm, which included New York City-based rappers Foxy Brown, AZ, and Cormega.

Following the limited sales success of Illmatic, Nas chose to focus his efforts in a more mainstream direction. The album proved to be Nas’s most commercially successful release, selling in excess of three million copies worldwide. It peaked at number one on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, remaining on the latter chart for thirty-four weeks. Following the disappointing sales figures of Illmatic, the album heralded Nas’s commercial popularity, despite its appeal being hindered by the success of other mafiaso rap albums. However, Nas's increased commercial success, along with his stylistic changes on the album, fostered accusations of selling out. It Was Written was also criticized for not being on-par with Illmatic, and served as an example of the sophomore jinx.

Following its mixed reaction, It Was Written s standing improved considerably, and it has been viewed by music writers as one of Nas's best work. It has also been credited for helping usher in the mafioso rap subgenre, and it has had a considerable amount of influence on hip hop artists. Similar to Illmatic s critical comparison to his following work, It Was Written has remained as Nas's best-selling release, as his subsequent albums have not been able to parallel its sales success. On September 9, 1996, the album was certified multi-platinum in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).


Following the critical acclaim of his debut album Illmatic (1994), Nas chose to concentrate his efforts in a more mainstream direction, in contrast to the raw, unpolished and underground tone of his debut. Despite its significant impact on hip hop at the time, Illmatic did not experience the larger sales of most major releases at the time in hip hop, such as Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle (1993). This was due in part to Nas's shy personality and uninvolvement in promoting the record. Nas began to make appearances on other artists' work, including Kool G Rap's "4,5,6" (1995) and Raekwon's "Verbal Intercourse" on his album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995), which made Nas the first non Wu-Tang member to appear on one of its solo recordings. He began to dub himself as Nas Escobar on these appearances.

Meanwhile, his excessive spending habits left him with little money, and Nas was forced to ask for a loan to purchase clothes to wear to the Source Awards ceremony in 1995. The success of fellow East Coast act The Notorious B.I.G. and promoter Puff Daddy at the awards show sent a message to Nas to change his commercial approach, resulting in his hiring of Steve "The Commissioner" Stoute as manager. While Illmatic attained gold status in the United States, Stoute convinced Nas to aim his efforts in a more mainstream, commercial direction for his sophomore album, after which Nas enlisted the production team Trackmasters, who were known at the time for their mainstream success. Others enlisted for the album's production personnel included DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, Havoc of Mobb Deep, L.E.S., Live Squad, and MC Serch as executive producer. Premier and L.E.S. previously served as producers for Nas's Illmatic. It Was Written was master by Tom Coyne at Sterling Sound in New York City.


Musical style

In contrast to Illmatic, the album contains a more detailed and elaborate production, while it shares similarity to the G-funk sound, relying heavily on sample and loop funk grooves. It Was Written has Nas experimenting with a theatrical mafioso concept under the alias of "Nas Escobar" (inspired by the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar). The album's subject matter has been noted for its focus on materialistic excess and other mafioso lyrical themes. Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote of Nas's shift in lyrical themes from Illmatic, stating he "repeatedly cites the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and drops brand names of clothes, cars, liquor and guns." Nas also references lines from his previous material, a common element in his music that has been analyzed by one music writer as "return[ing] to his professional beginnings in those references."


The album opens with "Album Intro" in which a slave rebellion is heard, and it contains samples of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (1964) and The Lost Generation's "The Sly, the Slick, and the Wicked" (1970). ( ) The opening song "The Message" features production by the Trackmasters, Poke & Tone, and scratching from Kid Capri. One critic described the song as a "bloody narrative", and cited it as "one of the most visually evocative songs of Nas' career". The song's title references the classic hip hop single "The Message" (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Legendary producer DJ Premier had one production credit on the jazz fusion-styled "I Gave You Power", a song which depicts a first-person narrative from the perspective of a gun. The song is accompanied by falling piano notes and stuttering drums. The album contains the singles "If I Ruled the World", which features guest vocals from Lauryn Hill, and "Street Dreams". Music critic J.R. Reynolds wrote that the former has Nas "rapping his way to anarchy in an imagined world where he kicks discipline to the curb and good times rule." In the song, he states that he would "open every cell in Atticamarker/send them to Africa". The latter is an account on the impact of drugs in Nas's neighborhood. The song contains smooth bass lines and frail drums, and it features an interpolation of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams " (1983).

The album also features guest appearances from Mobb Deep and The Firm, a supergroup which was initially composed of Nas, AZ, Cormega and Foxy Brown. The group makes an appearance on the song "Affirmative Action", a tale of robbery and three characters with mob connections. Brett Berliner of Stylus Magazine described the song's beat as "extremely mafioso, sounding straight out of Goodfellas, with strings and crescendos", while he cited the song as "one of the best posse track of all time." Mobb Deep's Havoc produced two tracks for the album, "The Set Up", a story about revenge, and "Live Nigga Rap", a freestyle performed by Nas and Mobb Deep with hard, gloomy percussion. "Black Girl Lost" is a sympathetic account on the struggle of African-American women. It features vocals by R&B singer Joel "Jo-Jo" Hailey of Jodeci. Music critic Krisex wrote of Nas's lyricism, stating "The L.E.S.-produced song woos heavy rotation while the MC makes the type of passionate perusals that leave lyrical aficionadeos genuflecting at his mike stand." The song's title comes from the book of the same name by pulp writer Donald Goines; his literary work has served as a popular source of reference for many gangsta rap artists. "Nas Is Coming" is a collaboration between Nas and West Coast rapper Dr. Dre. One writer cited it as "more of a gangsta, mainstream tune than anything Nas has ever recorded." The song's opening conversation, a skit, is a discussion between Nas and Dr. Dre about hip hop artists and fans over-concerned with the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, and that the two are producing a song that does not revolve around or contribute to the beef.


The album cover was designed by artist Aimée Macauley, and the photography was taken by Danny Clinch.

Release and reception

Commercial performance

It Was Written was released July 2, 1996 in the United States, Canada and Europe on Columbia Records, while featuring distribution in the United Kingdommarker on Simply Vinyl Records as a double vinyl LP. It Was Written proved to be Nas’s most commercially successful album to date, selling 268,000 copies at the time of its chart debut. It peaked at number 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, remaining on the latter chart at number 1 for four consecutive weeks, in the top 20 for eleven weeks, and a total of thirty-four weeks in the top 200.

The album's first single "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" peaked at number 15 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, number 17 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart and number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The second single "Street Dreams" hit number 1 on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart, as well as number 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, while it peaked at number 18 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. A remix version of "Street Dreams" was released on November 26, 1996 featuring production by Poke & Tone and guest vocals from R&B singer R. Kelly. On September 9, 1996, It Was Written was certified multi-platinum in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), following sales in excess of two million copies. On January 8, 1997, "Street Dreams" was certified gold in sales by the RIAA, following sales in excess of 500,000 copies.

Initial reaction

Despite its initial sales success and charting, It Was Written was initially criticized as not being on-par with Nas's debut album Illmatic, and served as an example of the sophomore jinx. In addition, the album's release followed the commercial and critical success of other mafiaso-themed rap albums with similar subject matter, including Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995), Reasonable Doubt (1996) and Doe or Die (1995). As a result, It Was Written became subject to much public scrutiny, and was given generally mixed reviews from several critics. Most of the album's negative criticism was directed at its mainstream, R&B and pop-leaning sound, as well as the enlistment of a top production unit and popular guest artists. Q magazine gave it 4 out of 5 stars and favored its production, while calling Nas's performance "angry, lean and full of drive." Both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times were favorable of the album's sound and gave the album three and-a-half out of four stars, and the Los Angeles Times gave It Was Written three out of four stars and called it "poetic". However, a columnist for Spin magazine called the album's production "stupid" and described the songs' choruses as "grainy, pop-savvy". Some critics generally disliked the album's subject matter, including Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone, who criticized it for its gangsta themes and called it "the latest blatant example of trashy tough-guy talk." He went on to state "No doubt Nas would shrug off the gangsta tag and claim that he's just telling it like it is. Certainly he strikes a note of creepy realism in his stories of heavyweight dealing and literally cutthroat competition. 'The Set Up', 'Shootouts' and 'Affirmative Action' (which preaches a different kind of equal opportunity) are chilling in their how-many-grams-to-a-kilo detail and utter amorality. On 'Watch Dem Niggas', Nas cites as inspirations both the boxing coach Cus D'Amato and the murderous drug lord Pablo Escobar. What is this guy thinking?" Music critic Robert Christgau gave the album a "neither" ( ) rating, indicating that it "may impress once or twice with consistent craft or an arresting track or two. Then it won't."

While Illmatic was praised for its lyrics, which depicted the reality of street life, the lyrical concept and themes of It Was Written were poorly received and heavily dismissed as an attempt by Nas to follow with the popularity of gangsta and mafiaso rap. Jon Pareles of The New York Times gave the album a mixed review and criticized Nas for an inconsistent thematic style, writing that he "continually shifts perspective." Pareles described it as "late-stage gangsta rap, starting to buckle under its own contradictions." A columnist for NME magazine gave the album 6 out of 10 rating, and stated "Nas' neat, considered lyrics treat the violence that surrounds him with a mixture of remorse, resignation and ebullience." The Source gave it 4 out of 5 mics and more favorable criticism of Nas's lyrics, calling the album an "audio anthology of ghetto stories told by one of hip-hop's most prolific writers." Vibe magazine's Krisex criticized the album's "consistently aggressive attempts at pop music", but also wrote that Nas "shines through". Despite calling the album "adequate" and commending Nas for his lyricism and flow, Krisex concluded that It was Written "isn't nearly as satisfying as his first one." Christopher John Farley of Time magazine gave the album a generally positive review and wrote that "The lyrics in It Was Written could be sharper, but the music, energetic and engaging on many tracks, helps drive his message home.." The album was ranked number 41 in NME s critics' poll of 1996, and Jim Farber of the New York Daily News named it the sixth best album of 1996. The German-based Spex magazine ranked it number 4 on its "End of Year" list, while the UK-based magazine The Face named it the twenty-fourth best album of 1996. "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" was ranked number 29 on NME's Singles of the Year list,[ Rankings: If I Ruled the World]. Acclaimed Music. Retrieved on 2009-02-22. and number 20 on ''[[The Village Voice]]''{{'}}s [[Pazz & Jop]] critics' poll.[ Pazz & Jop 1996: Critics Poll]. ''[[The Village Voice]]''. Retrieved on 2009-02-22. It was nominated for a [[Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance]] in 1997.[ Music: It Was Written : Title Notes]. [[Tower Records|]]. Retrieved on 2008-08-01. ===Retrospect=== In spite of being critically maligned upon its release, the album's standing has improved considerably over time, leading to it being viewed as one of Nas's best albums, while remaining to be his best-selling release to date.Basham, David. [ Got Charts? Nas Lookin' To Grow Legs; Jay-Z Unplugs]. [[MTV]]. Retrieved on 2009-03-10. By 2001, ''It Was Written'' had sold more than 2.13 million copies. Leo Stanley of [[Allmusic]] later praised Nas's lyricism and ghetto-themed vignettes, along with the album's detailed production. For [[Stylus Magazine]]'s ''On Second Thought'' publication, critic Brett Berliner re-examined the album, discussing its initial impact, and cited it as "one of the first hip-hop albums to straddle the critical and commercial divide successfully." While comparing ''It Was Written'' to ''Illmatic'', Berliner stated "It’s a seriously good album with a bit of filler, worth of almost all of the praise Illmatic got. This is Nas’ second classic, and should be considered one of the best albums of all time." [[]] later ranked "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" number 24 on its list of 50 Great Hip Hop Songs, while it also named the song the fourth best R&B/Rap Collaboration.Nero, Mark Edward. [ Top 50 R&B/Rap Collaborations]. [[]]. Retrieved on 2009-02-22. While later reviews of the album saw ''It Was Written'' in a different light than previous reviews had, the subject matter was still seen as a major flaw of the album. Music critics perceived Nas' violent, fantastical mafioso stories as lacking the emotion and truthfulness of his debut album. Writer Joe Katz wrote in a review of the album for [[Sputnikmusic]], stating "The lyrics were there, but some of the emotion was gone. Maybe it was the world around Nas changing, or maybe it was changing in himself, but no one can listen to this after ''Illmatic'' and not see a change ... If ''Illmatic'' was the kind of nightmare you can't wake up from and don't really want too, then ''IWW'' is a regular dream, not quite "real" but enjoyable all the same." While ''Illmatic'' is often held as Nas's [[masterpiece|magnum opus]], ''It Was Written'' was not only perceived by critics as part of a sophomore jinx, but was also the first of Nas's subsequent work to be heavily judged and compared to the former. However, ''It Was Written'' has been noted as his commercial breakthrough by critics, as it boosted the rapper's image in the mainstream and helped attract a much larger fan-base. ==Influence== ===Controversy=== "Nas is Coming" began a brief collaboration between Nas and West Coast hip hop producer [[Dr. Dre]]. The alliance also resulted in the formation of The Firm, who make their debut on track number eight, "Affirmative Action". The pairing of the East Coast rapper and the West Coast producer, during the period of the [[East Coast-West Coast rivalry]], brought criticism from both sides.Lang (2006), p. 117.Brown (2006), p. 59. More controversy ensued when, during the recording of The Firm's album, Cormega was fired from the group by Nas's manager, Steve Stoute, and replaced with a young rapper named [[Nature (rapper)|Nature]]. Cormega recorded an underground single, "Fuck Nas and Nature", which began a rivalry with Nas that persisted—with brief periods of reconciliation—to the end of 2005.Birchmeier, Jason. [ Cormega: Biography]. Allmusic. Retrieved on "Nas Reunites The Firm, With Cormega & Foxy". [[AllHipHop]]. December 24, 2006. In addition, West Coast-based rapper [[Tupac Shakur]] took offence to the opening line of the song "[[The Message (Nas song)|The Message]]", and in retaliation insulted Nas on a song titled "Against All Odds" from his posthumously-released album ''[[The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory]]'' (1996). In an interview for ''[[King (magazine)|King]]'' magazine, Nas later confirmed that the song was intended as a diss towards [[The Notorious B.I.G.]], with the line "There's one life, one love, so there can only be one King."{{cite web|last=Golianopoulos|first=Thomas|url=|title=KING Legacy: Nasir Jones, Part Two|publisher=[[King (magazine)|King]]|date=2008-05-01|accessdate=2008-05-20}} Nas and Shakur eventually met and squashed their beef prior to the latter's fatal shooting. As result of his death, Shakur did not have the opportunity to remove the insults to Nas in "Against All Odds" on ''The 7 Day Theory''. ===Hip hop artists=== ''It Was Written'' has been credited, along with Raekwon's ''[[Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…]]'' (1995), with helping usher in the era of the [[mafioso rap]]. According to writer Sam Chennault, while the hip hop subgenre would "run out of steam quickly, this release is a gem." Chennault also discussed the significance of ''It Was Written'' during the period of its release, stating "after mastering stark street corner realism on ''Illmatic'', Nas delivered a loose concept album that was, at the time, groundbreaking in its scope, approach and execution." According to rapper [[Young Noble]], a close friend of Tupac Shakur, the song "I Gave You Power" served as the main inspiration for Shakur's "[[The_Don_Killuminati:_The_7_Day_Theory#The_Making_of_Makaveli_.28from_XXL_Magazine.29|Me and My Girlfriend]]" (1996). American hip hop artist [[Lupe Fiasco]] has cited ''It Was Written'' as his favorite album and his primary source of inspiration. Fiasco has stated that he based his debut album ''[[Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor|Food & Liquor]]'' (2006) on the conceptual style and "moods" of ''It Was Written''. When asked of his musical influences in an interview with [[AllHipHop]].com, Fiasco stated "You know I really tried to go back and recreate [Nas’] ''It Was Written'', you know what I'm saying like that? [I would play] ''It Was Written'' and then I would play my album, and it was like, ‘Do we got [this] record, do we got that record?’" "Interview: Lupe Fiasco - Revenge of the Hip Hop Nerd". AllHipHop. February 12, 2006. When asked in an interview with about why he is comfortable admitting the album as a source of inspiration, Fiasco stated: {{quote|Cause it’s a classic. Like, people study-you study the masters, you know what I’m saying? Everybody that’s rapping studied someone to learn how to rap. They had a rapper who was they favorite rapper that they wanted to be like and wanted to rap like, know what I’m saying? For me, I just look at it like I studied a master piece. I modeled my album after a master piece; and not song for song; not line for line; not beat for beat. It was more-for me it was like mood for mood. The way he set the mood on that album to me was just like incredible. And at the time in my life-like, I fell in love with ‘''It Was Written''’ when I was seventeen, eighteen-a very impressionable time-so I was like I love that album. That’s my favorite Hip Hop album, so it’s like why not base your album on ‘''It Was Written''’?|Lupe Fiasco}}

American reggae and hip hop artist Matisyahu regards It Was Written as one of his influences as well. He cites the introduction of It Was Written, in which slaves rebel against their owner, as having a major influence on him. According to The Washington Post, "Matisyahu, too, felt enslaved. By what? He didn't know. Just felt the chains. The lyrics rocked him. The beat did, too." Matisyahu stated that after listening to It Was Written, "I connected with hip-hop, the hardness of it, the driving beat. It’s music with space, that has gaps in every little thing that happens."

Subsequent work by Nas

While It Was Written earned a more favorable reputation among critics since its initial mixed reception, Nas's subsequent releases have continued to be weighed against his critically acclaimed Illmatic, despite all of them outselling his debut. Against this standard, they have often been critically deemed as mediocre follow-ups. It Was Written was the first of Nas's albums to have been labeled as 'selling out' by fans of Illmatic, due to his crossover sensibilities and radio-friendly hits aimed at the pop charts. In addition, none of his following releases have been able to reach the sales success of It Was Written. The follow-up, I Am… (1999), fared almost as well as It Was Written, serving as Nas's only other album to reach double platinum status. After the releases of I Am… and Nastradamus (1999), which underwent considerable editing due to bootlegging of the recording sessions, many fans and critics feared that his career was deteriorating. Despite the chart-topping success of I Am…, hip hop audiences were not ready for the more prophetic themes of Nastradamus, as it only sold 232,000 copies by its first week (less than half of I Am… s first-week figures).

By 2001, Illmatic and It Was Written were both selling at a rate of over 3,000 copies a week, while Nastradamus was earning an average of little more than 2,000 copies a week, despite its relative newness. Both I Am… and Nastradamus received further criticism for their commercially-oriented sound. Reflecting this widespread perception in the hip hop community and adding to his ongoing feud with Nas at the time, Jay-Z mocked him in the song "Takeover" (2001) for assuming a "Pablo Escobar" persona and having a "one hot album [Illmatic] every ten year average". Nas, however, made something of a comeback with his fifth album Stillmatic (2001) and the follow-up God's Son (2002), which both sold in excess of 1 million copies. Afterwards, his subsequent albums tended to receive more positive reviews, including the platinum-selling Street's Disciple (2004) and his untitled ninth album (2008). Nevertheless, It Was Written has remained as Nas's best-selling album.

Track listing

# Title Length Songwriters Producer(s) Performer(s) Sample(s)
1 "Album Intro" 2:24 N. Jones Nas & Trackmasters Nas & AZ (uncredited)
  • Contains sample from "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke
  • Contains sample from "The Sly, the Slick, and the Wicked" by The Lost Generation
2 "The Message" 3:54 N. Jones, S. Barnes Trackmasters Nas
  • Contains sample from "Shape of My Heart" by Sting
  • Contains sample from "Woman" by Neneh Cherry
  • Contains samples from "NY State Of Mind" by Nas
3 "Street Dreams" 4:40 N. Jones, S. Barnes, A. Lennox, D. Stewart Trackmasters Nas
4 "I Gave You Power" 3:52 N. Jones, C. Martin DJ Premier Nas
5 "Watch Dem Niggas" 4:04 N. Jones, S. Barnes Trackmasters Nas & Foxy Brown
6 "Take It in Blood" 4:48 N. Jones, R. Walker, C. Horne, J. Pruit, J. Epps, W. Childs Live Squad, Lo Ground & Top General Sounds Nas
  • Contains sample from "Ease Back" by Ultramagnetic MCs
  • Contains sample from "Mixed Up Moods & Attitudes" by The Fantastic Four
7 "Nas Is Coming" 5:41 N. Jones, A. Young Dr. Dre Nas & Dr. Dre
  • Contains sample from "Synopsis Two: Mother's Day " by 24 Carat Black
8 "Affirmative Action" 4:19 N. Jones, I. Marchand, C. McKay, A. Cruz, S. Barnes, J.C. Olivier Dave Atkinson, Trackmasters Nas, AZ, Cormega, Foxy Brown, (The Firm)
  • Contains sample from "Hard to Handle" by Etta James
9 "The Set Up" 4:01 N. Jones, K. Muchita Havoc Nas & Havoc
10 "Black Girl Lost" 4:23 N. Jones, L. Lewis, J. Mtume, Lucas L.E.S., Trackmasters Nas & Joel "Jo-Jo" Hailey
11 "Suspect" 4:12 N. Jones, L. Lewis L.E.S. Nas
12 "Shootouts" 3:46 N. Jones, S. Barnes, J.C. Olivier Trackmasters Nas

  • Contains sample from "I Wish You Were Here" by Al Green
  • Contains sample from "Theme from 'The Avengers'" by Laurie Johnson
13 "Live Nigga Rap" 3:45 N. Jones, K. Muchita Havoc Nas & Mobb Deep
14 "If I Ruled the World " 4:42 N. Jones, S. Barnes, J.C. Olivier, K. Walker Trackmasters & Rashad Smith Nas & Lauryn Hill
  • Contains sample from "Friends" by Whodini
  • Contains an interpolation of "If I Ruled the World" by Kurtis Blow
  • Contains an interpolation of "Walk Right Up to the Sun" by The Delfonics
*15 "Silent Murder"

(Japanese, European CD Versions & US Cassette Tape Version Bonus Track)
3:24 N. Jones, M. H. Browne, B. T. Romeo Live Squad, Lo Ground & Top General Sounds Nas
*16 "Affirmative Action St-Denis-Style Remix"

(European CD Reedition Bonus Track)
N. Jones, I. Marchand, A. Cruz, S. Barnes, J.C. Olivier Dave Atkinson, Trackmasters, Adapted by Joey Starr & Kool Shen (NTM) Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown & NTM (Joey Starr & Kool Shen)

Chart history

Chart (1996) Peak

U.S. Billboard 200 1
U.S. Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums 1
UK Albums Chart 38

Year Single Peak positions
Billboard Hot 100 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks Hot Rap Tracks UK Singles Chart
1996 "If I Ruled The World" 53 17 15 12
"Street Dreams" 22 18 1 12

Chart procession and succession



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