Revisiting the most thrilling rap battle of all time.
Last Thursday, Nasty Nas returned to the fold after a six year album hiatus. The seven track Nasir, produced by G.O.O.D. Music’s assembly line conductor Kanye West, was premiered at a listening party under the Queensboro Bridge. For the Poet of Queensbridge to return to his old stomping grounds seemed prophetic, a moment that was enshrined amidst the blurry lights of the city on the other side of the East River. Hip hop heads watched the Mass Appeal livestream in awe, as the man who had etched his name in music lore with the immortal Illmatic unveiled his 11th studio effort to the world.
What should have been a triumphant return was suddenly resigned to a quiet place in the Cloud when music’s preeminent power couple swooped in with a surprise collaboration project that put the kibosh on the entire affair. It was as if Beyonce and Jay-Z had shown up to the party without an invitation and promptly told everyone to go home before the clock had even struck midnight. The title of the album, Everything Is Love, is a nod to the couple’s highly publicized relationship and a celebration of their renewed family dynasty. But it inadvertently felt mocking, as if Bey and Jay were holding a seminar on how to age gracefully for those unfortunate enough to draw the same release weekend. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your wife is unequivocally one of the industry’s most talented individuals and a bonafide golden child. But Jay-Z once again proved his relevance, maintaining a firm grip on hip hop’s ear, and seemingly goading his former rival, Nas, with a juxtaposition of career paths that is impossible to ignore.
Jay-Z has cemented his celebrity status both as a rapper and savvy entrepreneur outside of rap. He’s a timeless wonder whose street hustler mentality transformed him from a businessman to a business, man. Nas is cut from a different cloth. His god-given talent has forever earned him a place in the conversation of hip hop’s greatest emcees. Still, he remains considerably less distinguished beyond the realm of music than his 2001 sparring partner, a gap that has become increasingly visible in the seventeen years since their feud. This dichotomy of styles and ambitions lies at the heart of what culminated in “Takeover” vs. “Ether,” a gutsy head-to-head that brought out the best in two of the most influential rappers of all time.
The six year build up to the mesmerizing battle for lyrical supremacy is just as important to the tale as the main event itself. The stage was set in 1995, when Nas stood up Jay Z at a recording session. That didn’t stop Jay and producer Ski Beatz, who lifted the “I’m out for presidents to represent me” from Nas’s “The World Is Yours.” The line was utilized as the backbone for Jay Z’s “Dead Presidents,” his first single released for his debut album Reasonable Doubt. It was a song that planted the initial seed of discord; Nas was included on the track but certainly not in a manner that met his approval. From there, the subliminal disses began to swirl. In Nas’s 1996 record “The Message,” he slipped in an outwardly innocuous line: “Lex with TV sets the minimum.” At first glance, there’s not much to dissect beyond rap’s ostentatious leanings, but it was eventually revealed that the line was a subtle jab at Jay-Z, who Nas had seen riding around in a Lexus outfitted with TVs. In an interview with Complex, Nas divulged that he was so irked by the image that he promptly got rid of his own Lexus and began “looking for the next best thing.”
By the time 1997 rolled around, things were really starting to heat up. The death of the Notorious B.I.G. prompted Jay to anoint himself the next King of New York. On “The City Is Mine,” Jay raps, “Don’t worry about Brooklyn, I continue to flame/Therefore a world with amnesia won’t forget your name/You held it down long enough, let me take those reins.” Jay-Z’s self proclaimed crowning as replacement royalty prompted a response from Nas on “We Will Survive,” his ode to Biggie on which he opted to take the high road: “It used to be fun makin’ records to see your response/But now competition is none now that you’re gone/And these n****s is wrong, using your name in vain/And they claim to be New York’s King? It ain’t about that.”
Memphis Bleek, one of Jay-Z’s close associates at the time, released a brief assault against Nas in 1999 on “My Mind Right,” saying “Your lifestyle’s written/So who you supposed to be? Play your position.” It wasn’t much in the way of a lyrical barb worthy of a response, but it proved to Nas that he had Jay-Z’s attention. The Queens rapper spied an opportunity to draw the lion out of his den for a decisive confrontation. On his 2000 “Eye For An Eye Freestyle,” he made it impossible for Jay-Z to avoid the conflict any longer: “Y’all n****s all hail, the King is dead/He running like a b**** with his tail between his legs/’Stillmatic,’ still eye for an eye, wanna be God/You’re just the next rapper to die, f***ing with Nas.”
Jay-Z’s maiden performance of “Takeover” at Hot 97’s 2001 Summer Jam concert had several memorable highlights. But it was the way that Hov ended the song that truly stole the show. With the raucous concert-goers on his side, Jay issued a bold proclamation: “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov, no!” The gloves were off, and the bloodshed commenced. Nas subsequently released “Stillmatic (Freestyle),” firing off shots at the Roc over a remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full.” Though the song touched a nerve, what with Nas labeling Jay-Z “the fake King of New York” and “the rapping version of Sisqo,” it failed to create a buzz.
When the full version of “Takeover” was released on The Blueprint, the streets of New York erupted. Jay-Z not only responded to “Stillmatic (Freestyle),” but he also made it a point to meticulously lecture Nas on his commercial failings. The mathematical obliteration of Nas was enhanced with biting facts about his widely perceived fall from the top ten, his inexcusable lack of consistency, and his laughable financial oversights. The lines about Nas’s bodyguard’s superior verse on “Oochie Wally” and the closing bit alluding to Nas’s baby mother that left the details up to the imagination were absolutely soul crushing: Jay had done his research, covered all of his bases, and made Nas look like a complete and utter disappointment in the process. No one expected Nas to come back from what Jay later deemed to be the inescapable “figure-four leg lock.”
It is difficult to put into words just how damning “Ether” was when it hit. Shea Serrano said it best in The Rap Year Book: “Nas releases ‘Ether’ and all of the birds in the sky die and all of the fish in the ocean die, too.” The distorted, angry vocals from 2Pac’s “F*** Friendz” set the tone for the rest of the record, on which Nas’s witty wordplay is paired with raunchy build ups and resounding knockout punches. He reaffirmed his influence, badgered Jay-Z for a corny, late 80s music video appearance, and sonned him like a disappointed father who had watched his offspring grow into a 36-year-old social climber and style-biter that took "tae-bo" and had zero respect for his mentors. As if the cutthroat line about Eminem washing Jay-Z on his own record wasn’t enough, Nas closed out the track by flipping the “Takeover” chorus to his advantage. It was another masterful display from the man with unmatched skills; he had turned "ethered" into a household word.
There are many details that are often overlooked when it comes to rap’s greatest battle: the petty face-off between Nas’s “Come Get Me” and Jay-Z’s “Come And Get Me” in 1999; Jay-Z’s clowning of Nas in “Is That Your Chick”; and the fabled claim that Jay-Z heard Nas talking reckless on the radio in L.A., deciding to finally take it to him over Kanye West’s sample of “Five To One” by The Doors in what eventually became “Takeover.” It’s all part of the allure of the beef, and the reason that it remains such a compelling historical chapter worth discussing. By the time that Jay-Z brought out Nas as a special guest on his “I Declare War” tour in October 2005, the hatchet had been buried, and two of rap’s all time greats went their separate ways.
Still, the climax of their rivalry was an undeniable jumping off point for both artists. Within a year, Jay-Z had released The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, which predictably debuted at number one and would go on to sell over 3 million copies. As for Nas, “Ether” was career revitalizing, helping carry Stillmatic to critical and commercial success. And while both Jay-Z and Nas had a great deal to lose in their war of words to determine the best rapper alive, they could not have been on more incongruous trajectories. Jay-Z proved himself to be driven by commercial success, looking for returns on his investments and gaining headway toward his now $900 million net worth, while Nas was vastly more concerned with the intricacies of the artistic process. Ultimately, “Takeover” vs. “Ether” was the convergence of two incompatible philosophies that yielded two very different results. Nas won 2001, but Jay-Z’s calculated longevity allowed him to keep winning long after the dust had settled.