2001: The Rivalry Between Jay-Z and Nas

50 Years of Hip-Hop
Hosted by Martin Douglas

Martin Douglas revisits 2001 to unpack the legendary rivalry between Jay-Z and Nas, a story that starts with an empty throne for the king of New York hip-hop. 


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Martin Douglas revisits 2001 to unpack the legendary rivalry between Jay-Z and Nas, a story that starts with an empty throne for the king of New York hip-hop. 

Written by Martin Douglas.

Audio production by Roddy Nikpour. 

Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop 

For all intents and purposes, hip-hop is a combat sport. 

Yes, of course, rap is an art form and art is inherently subjective. But it’s also a competition of wit and will, a proving ground to see where you measure up. The history of rap battles extends back to the days of DJs scratching breaks and dancers spinning on their heads. 

Soon, rap battles made their way from face-to-face freestyle bouts to recorded declarations of war, both territorial…

and personal.

One of the most prominent of these bouts was the 2001 heavyweight clash between Jay-Z and Nas. In a lot of ways, the seeds were planted about five years prior, during a rivalry of grave proportions.

There have been documentaries, books, and biopics based on the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, also known as The Notorious B.I.G. and beloved in the rap community under the moniker Biggie Smalls. It was a friendship turned misunderstanding turned one-sided rivalry turned bicoastal tragedy. Tupac was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996 and Biggie was killed the following year in Downtown Los Angeles. 

To make a very long story short, before being gunned down at just 24 years old, Biggie was almost unanimously regarded in the rap community as the King of New York. And though the city mourned him appropriately…

Rappers once regarded as peers didn’t mourn for too long, because there was a vacant throne to be seized.

Jay-Z nods to Big’s standing as a hitmaker on the glossy 1997 single, “The City of Mine.” Jay recites the first verse as both a tribute to his fallen friend and a pledge to become the next great artist in the already-history lineage of New York rap. In a way, he pushed himself into the conversation by constantly asserting he was ALREADY one of the greats. 

Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas. The father, the son, and the Holy Ghost. The idea of a holy trinity in hip-hop was nothing new, and Jay’s claim on “Where I’m From” felt a bit premature even to some of his fans. Still, it DID come from someone with a great debut album, Reasonable Doubt, and an okay follow-up. To be fair, In My Lifetime Volume 1 had a few very inspired moments, like the opener “A Million and One Questions” …

the ominous but pensive “Streets is Watching” …

and the taunting “Imaginary Player.”

But there was a sense that Jay was adopting a glossier production style in order to sell more records. As much as he was criticized initially for copying off Big’s test, so to speak, most rappers used the Bed Stuy great’s style as a template. Even Nas.

Nas’s critically exalted debut album Illmatic virtually elevated him to poet laureate status in hip-hop in 1994. Two years later, he dropped It Was Written. The jazz samples and personal writing of Illmatic were largely replaced with gritty street narratives and glossy, expensive samples. 

On his second album, Nas reinvents himself as a mafioso-inspired kingpin type, giving himself the same surname as Medellin Cartel founder Pablo Escobar. There’s a similar lyrical focus to the themes of Illmatic, but only to a degree. Nas scored the biggest hit of his career with the pensive and earnest “If I Ruled the World,” assisted on the chorus by Lauryn Hill…

But elsewhere, the reinvention took hold. He penned fictional tales steeped in the crime world, like “Shootouts”...

And assembled a quasi-supergroup with a mafia aesthetic called The Firm, named after the 1993 mob movie starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.

On his third album, I Am, Nas penned a heartfelt tribute to Big titled “We Will Survive,” which featured a line that arguably kickstarted the cold war between him and his peer, Jay-Z.

Between 1998 and the summer of 2001, Jay-Z and Nas fought in the margins of verses on deep album cuts and mixtape freestyles. Throughout this space of time, Jay achieved the King of New York status on his proverbial vision board. He became a respected MC and a reliable hitmaker. He also amassed a team of protegés making a name for themselves in the streets.

Meanwhile, Nas received mixed reactions for his albums It Was Written and I Am. The reaction to the debut from The Firm was also lukewarm.  And, when Nas released his fourth album Nastradamus in 2000… to put it rather diplomatically, it was considered a creative failure. 

All of Nas’s albums sold well except for the full length by The Firm. Still, they were all products of rampant mixtape leaks and bootlegging. The public was so hungry for Nas’s brilliance that the finished commercial products paled in comparison to the songs left behind and sold illegally on Canal Street.

The summer of 2001 is when all this simmering tension would come to a head. After all the rumors, debates, and private barbs held in very public forums, Jay-Z stepped onstage at Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam event in New York and declared war. His headlining performance was most notable for his dismissal of Prodigy, one half of the infamous rap duo Mobb Deep. Jay attempted to embarrass his rival by posting an old photo from a dance studio. A far cry from the rapper who once threatened to stab you with your nose bone. 

The eight words at the end of the track “The Takeover” was what REALLY had the rap word talking. “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov.” 

That led Nas to immediately strike back. In a track dubbed the “Stillmatic Freestyle,” he unfurls a long verse heavy with the sort of pathos that made him beloved. 

The track obviously made headlines for directly targeting Jay, with lines targeting his Roc-A-Fella crew, his clothing line, and what Nas deemed as his fabricated street rep. 

At this point, summer was turning to fall. On the same day as one of the most tragic events in American history — September 11, 2001 — Jay-Z released his sixth full-length album, The Blueprint. While Manhattan was still smoldering and bathed in ash, over 400,000 buyers eagerly listened to track two, “The Takeover.”

Over Kanye West’s now-immortal flip of “Five to One” by the Doors, the newly christened Jay-Hova takes his most vocal detractors to task. The song’s third verse is where Jay unloads his scathing critique of Nas’s career. Jay tracks the regression of quality in his rival’s output, paints Nas as the author of a fictional life, notes how Nas was getting screwed over for his publishing royalties, credits himself as the source of Nas’s street narratives, and very subtly alludes to sleeping with the mother of Nas’s daughter. 

The latter of which will end up being a crucial moment in determining the winner of this battle.

Nas would strike back two months later with “Ether.”

On an album titled Stillmatic, also track two.

It’s a personal meditation, a career resurrection, a lament about an artist whose style he fathered, selling his soul for riches. It’s a takedown so thorough, so vicious, so bitterly personal that the word “ether” became a verb, meaning to completely annihilate an opponent.

Jay-Z’s track “Takeover” evokes a king batting away a broken down foe not even worth his time. However, the track “Ether” finds Nas adopting a number of perspectives. The elite MC who Jay sought out as a fan. The proud father looking at his son’s success with a mix of amusement and worry for his eternal soul. The prophet observing the jester trying to nestle under the wing of various kings. Jay’s past life as the sidekick in Jaz-O’s “Hawaiian Sophie” video crops up, so does the kid getting chased to his public housing building wearing his mentor’s gold chains. 

Nas takes Jay to task for having the nerve to say he’s surpassed Big, only after his friend has gone cold in his grave. And as a parting kick in the shins, he says Jay talks greasy and then walks it back in apology, like he did with Yonkers rapper Jadakiss. 

How the winner of a battle is determined usually comes down to who has the last word. In the war of words between Jay-Z and Nas, it was actually Jay who delivered the final blow, in a mixtape freestyle titled “Super Ugly,” which lives up to his name. Over the beat for Nas’s on “Got Ur Self a Gun,” Jay offers details of sleeping with the mother of Nas’s daughter, Destiny. The diss was so crass Jay-Z’s own mother Gloria Carter urged him to apologize for recording the track. 

Even though Jay delivered that final blow, the battle was near-unanimously decided as a win for Nas. Even after 2001, he and Jay took swipes at each other for the next few years over various songs. Most notably on the title track of Jay’s 2002 double album The Blueprint 2, where he took issue with a double standard he felt he was held to in terms of misogynistic lyrics. 

In 2006, Jay and Nas finally came together on a track called “Black Republican” to officially end their near-decade-long rivalry. 

It wasn’t necessarily the titanic meeting that was expected after all these years, but it was a good track and a positive note to end their years of insults. The song had an air of inevitability. After all, pretty much no one ever considered the possibility of actual violence culminating from this feud. 

All in all, the main event clash between Jay-Z and Nas was a historically significant, high-profile clash of two talented artists with larger than life personalities … and egos. It’s exactly the kind of box office attraction that brings fans of the sport of rap into the fold.

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