Jay-Z vs Nas: The Story Behind the Feud

Nas & Jay-Z

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The Jay-Z vs. Nas beef was a gladiatorial battle between two rap titans. For almost a decade, two of rap's most decorated emcees went at each other's throat. They started off with subliminal jabs and moved up to body shots. Fans cheered them on. Crews got in the mix. Digs got so personal that parents had to step in. Thankfully, the battle didn't end in tragedy like Biggie vs. 2Pac. It ended in triumph. And friendship. Jay-Z and Nas would later shake hands and join forces.

Let's backtrack to an earlier time when Jay-Z and Nas vied for New York supremacy in one of the greatest hip-hop battles of all time.

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"Lex with TV sets the minimum"

The year is 1996. Nas is one of the hottest MCs in the country, thanks to his debutIllmatic, released a couple years earlier. Word on the street is that Nas was supposed to appear on Reasonable Doubt, but he never showed up to record his verse for "Bring It On." In the absence of the real deal himself, producer Ski Beatz samples a Nas line from "The World is Yours" (Pete Rock remix) on another Jay-Z song, "Dead Presidents II." Arguably Jay-Z's best song, "Dead Presidents II" prominently features the line "I'm out for presidents to represent me." Reasonable Doubt hit shelves in June '96.

Nas' second album, It Was Written, arrived a month later. The album opener "The Message" includes the first of many perceived subliminal shots at Jay-Z: "Lex with TV sets the minimum." What does this line have to do with the Brooklyn rapper? Well, Jay-Z's first album sports several references to Lexus. Recall that Jay likened his mind to a Lexus on "Can I Live" ("My mind is infested, with sick thoughts that circle like a Lexus"). Plus, his "Dead Presidents II" video shows off a sweet Lexus GS.

Nas later confirmed that Jay-Z inspired that line, telling Complex:

"I saw Jay-Z driving a Lexus with the TVs in them. I got rid of my Lexus at that point and I was looking for the next best thing. It wasn’t a shot at Jay but it was just saying that’s the minimum you gotta have. It’s not a shot at him but he inspired that line. It wasn’t necessarily a shot at him but because the song was a shot at everybody, he fell into that. But he definitely inspired that line."
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Jay-Z samples Nas' voice again on "Rap Game/Crack Game." Jay is parsimonious with praise, but he bestows props on deserving peers from time to time. Sampling Nas is Jay-Z's head nod to his Queens rival. But that's only half the story.

On "Where I'm From," Jay also drops a reference that many believe to be his first jab in the battle: “I'm from where ni--as pull your card, and argue all day about/Who’s the best MC’s, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas.”

Rap is a competitive sport and Jay-Z likes to win. Following the death of Biggie Smalls in March 1997, Jay-Z makes a claim for New York's hip-hop throne with "The City is Mine."

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Memphis Bleek and Jay-Z
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Jay-Z's protege Memphis Bleek's debut single from Coming of Age is a song titled "Memphis Bleek is...," which seems to ape Nas' "Nas is Like..." Elsewhere on the same album, Bleek raps a line that will sow the early seeds of the beef. "My whole team rock rocks, we don't speak to cats/I'mma ball till I fall what you think of that?" — Memphis Bleek, "What You Think of That"

Nas references the line and Bleek's trademark tilted cap, which Bleek wore on the cover of Coming of Age:

Shots Fired: "You wanna ball till you fall, I can help you with that/You want beef? I could let a slug melt in your hat." — Nas, "Nastradamus"

Fired up, Memphis Bleek responds on "Mind Right." He questions Nas' credibility and blatantly references Nas' album title ("Your lifestyle's written/So who you supposed to be, play your position.") 

Shots Fired: "It's beef I'mma see you, and bang til you hang up/Your life a lie, but here's the truth: You ain't hype to die, but you hype to shoot." — Memphis Bleek, "Mind Right"

Nas drops "We Will Survive," which addresses the deaths of Biggie and Pac while pondering the prospects of another major feud between two rap giants. 

Shots Fired: "It used to be fun, makin records to see your response/But, now competition is none, now that you’re gone/And these n--as is wrong — using your name in vain/And they claim to be New York’s king?/It ain’t about that." — Nas, "We Will Survive"

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Jay-Z and Nas continue to trade shots well into the new decade. Jay launches his first direct attack on Nas at Hot 97 FM's 2001 Summer Jam. After slapping a picture of a dancing young Prodigy on the screen, Jay raps the first 32 bars of "Takeover." He attacks Mobb Deep and dubs Prodigy "a ballerina." Ever the calculated genius, Jay calls out Nas with one suave bar at the end of "Takeover": "Ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov. NO." 

Nas swiftly responds with a scathing freestyle over Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full." On the freestyle later dubbed "Stillmatic" (aka "H to the Omo"), Nas runs through a list of charges against Jay. According to Nas, Jay is a fake hustler, a liar, a phony. Nas questions Jay-Z's sexuality dubs him the "fake King of New York," and mocks him for sampling his songs ("I count off when you sample my voice.")

Jay-Z couldn't have wished for a better response. He knew Nas would take the bait. So Jay returns to "Takeover" and tacks on the final verse he'd been saving for Nas with a few alterations.

The first thing you hear on "Takeover" is Jim Morrison's voice: "C'MON!...Gonna win, yeah, we're takin' over..." A young producer named Kanye West built the song atop a bed of thick drums and a sinister sample of The Doors' "Five to One." KRS-ONE's vocal sample from "Sound of the Police" ("Watch out! We run New York!") gives the track a militant feel. 

Cooly riding the bassline is Jay-Z. Jay explains with biting wit that Nas and Prodigy are fake thugs who lie about their rep. After two full verses of Mobb Deep disses, Jay-Z turns his attention to Nas for the next 32 bars. With scholarly focus, Jay-Z dismantles Nas' earlier attacks on "Stillmatic" Freestyle while launching a few missiles of his own.

Nas questioned Jay's sexuality. Jay says it's Nas who's the "fag model Karl Kani/Esco ads."

Nas dubbed Jay a fake hustler. Jay replies that Nas didn't live the street life, he "witnessed from his folks' pad." He adds that Nas had never seen a TEC-9 until Jay showed him one while on tour with Large Professor. Large Pro would (somewhat) confirm this story later.

Nas said he "counts off" when Jay-Z samples his songs. Jay replies that Nas made it a hot line, but he (Jay-Z) made it a hot song. Besides, Jay adds, Nas wasn't really counting off: "You ain't get a corn, n---a, you was getting f---ed then/I know who I paid, god, Serchlite Publishing." Jay-Z even ad-libs the line again in the background ("I'm out for presidents to represent me, ni--a!").

The unique thing about "Takeover" is that Jay-Z approaches the song from a hip-hop head's perspective. He's sarcastically analyzing Nas' career from the perspective of a brutally honest fan. In the process, he framed conversations around Nas' career, even if the facts were embellished for dramatic effect.

Shots Fired:
Ni--, you ain't live it
You witnessed it from your folks' pad
You scribbled it in your notepad and created your life
I showed you your first Tec, on tour with Large Professor
Then I heard your album about your Tec on the dresser
So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain't get a coin, ni--a, you was getting f--ked then
I know who I paid, God - Serchlite publishing
Use your braaaaain
You said you've been in this 10, I've been in it 5 - smarten up, Nas
4 albums in 10 years, ni--a? I could divide
That's one every...let's say 2
2 of them shi-s was doo
1 was "nah," the other was Illmatic
That's a one-hot-album-every-10-year average
And that's so (lame)
Ni--a, switch up your flow
Your sh-t is garbage
What you trying to kick, knowledge?
— Jay-Z, "Takeover"

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2001 (Continued)

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One of the most powerful lines on "Takeover" arrives on the third verse: "Because you know who did you know what with you know who/But let's keep that between me and you." Only three people know what Jay is talking about here: Jay-Z, Nas and You-know-who. Jay is baiting Nas, daring him to respond.

Not responding wasn't even an option for Nas. The only question remaining is "How do you recover respond to a song as effective as 'Takeover'?" 

"Ether" cracks the streets of New York with a 38 Special. You hear gunshots, then a chopped and screwed 2Pac barking, "F-ck Jay-Z." And with that, Nas dives right into a long list of insults. He calls Jay-Z a "stan," mocks his Roc-a-Fella crew and questions his loyalty to Biggie Smalls ("Biggie's your man, then you got the nerve to say that you're better than Big.")

Shots Fired:
No jail bars Jigga, no pies, no case
Just Hawaiian shirts, hanging with little Chase
You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pu--y, a Stan
I still whip your ass, you thirty-six in a karate class
You Tae-Bo ho, tryna work it out, you tryna get brolic
Ask me if I'm tryna kick knowledge
Nah, I'm tryna kick the sh-t you need to learn though
That ether, that sh-t that make your soul burn slow
— Nas, "Ether"

The vibrations of "Ether" are felt across the country. The term "ether" would go on to become part of hip-hop lingo. With Nas' popularity slipping at the time, "Ether" restores him as a pivotal rap figure.

Nas also throws shots at Jay-Z on other songs from Stillmatic, including "Got Ur Self A...," "Destroy & Rebuild" ("Even Jigga want the crown, how that sound? Poor thing") and "You're Da Man."

Shots Fired:
Your arms too short to box with God
I don't kill soloists, only kill squads
Fame went to they head, so now it's "F-ck Nas"
Yesterday you begged for a deal, today you tough guys
I seen it coming, soon as I popped my first bottle
I spotted my enemies tryna do what I do
Came in with my style, so I fathered you
I kept changing on the world since "Barbeque"
Now you wanna hang with ni--as I hung with
F-ck b---hes I hit
— Nas, "You're da Man"

This n---a never sold Aspirin, how he Escobar?

Rattled, Jay-Z makes an uncharacteristic move. On December 11, 2001, Hot 97 FM premieres Jay-Z's "Supa Ugly," a freestyle over "Got Ur Self A..." and "Bad Intentions." "Supa Ugly" is an underrated diss track packed with some pointed lines ("This n---a never sold Aspirin, how he Escobar?; "N---as in pink suits trynna get cute"). But it gets overshadowed by one reckless moment. After two verses of hip-hop bravado, Jay-Z gets super ugly. He reveals a fling with Carmen Bryan, the mother of Nas' daughter Destiny, complete with graphic imagery.

Shots Fired:
Me and the boy AI got more in common than just balling and rhyming
Get it? More in Carmen
I came in your Bentley backseat, skeeted in your Jeep
Left condoms on your baby seat
—Jay-Z, "Supa Ugly"

Jay-Z is usually savvy. But with Nas raising the stakes, Jay deemed it fair game to take the gloves off and throw everything he had on Nas. He had hinted at this on "Takeover," and now the whole world knows who did what with you know who.

Jay-Z's mother Gloria Carter was among the thousands of fans tuned into Hot 97 when "Supa Ugly" premiered. She hears the lines about Carmen and Destiny on the radio and tells her son he went too far. Gloria tells Jay-Z to apologize to Nas and his family. Jay obliges, offering an apology on Angie Martinez's Hot 97 show. "I want to apologize to Carmen and any females I may have offended," Jay said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Nas later told MTV: "I mean, there was even a moment when Jay was on the radio and you know, Moms said, 'Chill.' His mom, my mom — bless her — was listening and I was like, 'Wow, my moms was listening.' And the fact that he said it on the radio [when] his mom was listening, that's when I knew we both went too far."

Hot 97 polled fans to ask them who won the beef. Nas picks up 58% of the votes, while Jay-Z garners 42% of the votes.

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"I was Scarface, Jay was Manolo"

Jay-Z continues his attacks Nas on "The Blueprint 2," the title track from his 2002 album. He claims that he's more generous than Nas and questions Nas' street credibility again. He also references the "Supa Ugly" apology: "My momma can't save you this time / Ni--as is history."

Nas doesn't respond with a full diss like "Ether." Instead, he sums up the "Jigga war" on "The Last Real N---a Alive," one of his greatest tracks to date. Nas uses the song to detail the history of New York beefs with references to Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan and Puff Daddy. He treats Jay as a mere footnote rather than a key figure in New York's storied hip-hop history.

Shots Fired:
Jigga started to flow like us, but hit with "Ain't No Ni--a"
Had much Versace swagger
Big admired the Brooklynite and took him in as Iceberg the rapper
— Nas, "The Last Real N---a Alive"

Nas wraps up the song by comparing their rivalry to the movie Scarface: "I was Scarface, Jay was Manolo/It hurt me when I had to kill him and his whole squad for dolo."

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"First of all this is Nas, I’ma Braveheart veteran/And y’all already know who I’m better than"

The beef begins to die down. Only minor shots persist. There was a moment when Jay-Z goes on BET's Rap City and freestyles a response to Nas' Made You Look: "They shootin'/But nobody dyin'/Somebody's lyin'." 

Meanwhile, Nas opens on the Lil Jon-produced Bravehearts single "Quick to Back Down" with a subliminal shot at Jay: “First of all this is Nas, I’ma Braveheart veteran/And y’all already know who I’m better than”

Jay and Nas continue to make music but generally stay out of each other's way.

Jay retires with The Black Album.

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Nas and Jay-Z shaking hands

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In October 2005, Jay-Z headlined a comeback concert dubbed "I Declare War." He declared peace instead and invited several rappers. Among the guest performers were: P. Diddy, The LOX, and Nas. Jay-Z and Nas officially squashed their beef at the show and performed "Dead Presidents" and "The World is Yours." The crowd went monkey bananas.

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Nas ends his deal with Columbia Records and signs with Def Jam, which is now headed by Jay-Z. The new friends team up on their first recording together, "Black Republican" off Nas' Hip-Hop is Dead.

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The Aftermath

Nas and Jay-Z

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The renewed alliance between Jay and Nas has produced several cuts, including: Jay-Z's "Success," Ludacris' "I Did It for Hip-Hop" and Jay-Z's "BBC," off .