(Editor’s note: We’d like to welcome TSL readers to a new series, “Versus.” The name says it all, right? Periodically, we’ll take songs, artists, films, athletes – and anything thing else that has spurred debate – and get two TSL writers to go at it. For our inaugural post, we wanted to honor Black Music Month. Initially, there was talk of settling the “Stevie vs. Marvin” score. But that’s when I noticed TSL featured columnist Bomani Jones involved in yet another Twitter-debate on the winner of the “‘Takeover’ vs. ‘Ether’” way between Jay-Z and Nas at the turn of the millennium. Bo, if you follow him on Twitter, is in the “Takeover” camp. So it only felt write to bring TSL deputy editor Khalid Salaam into the mix, since you’ll find few more committed Nas fans. With that said: Let the fun begin. (P.S.: They allowed me a few editor’s notes throughout.))
BOMANI: I’ll start briefly, as I realize we’re only going to end on “agree to disagree,” but I still can’t believe people think “Ether” was superior to “Takeover.” Maybe it’s because Nas gave three highly emotional verses about Jay-Z, compared to the one-and-change Jigga dedicated to Nas...but that’s exactly the point. Jay broke down the career of one of the greatest emcees of all time in one verse. He exposed how far he’d fallen off. He called Nas out for pretending to get paid off something – his voice – he didn’t own (just think about that for a second). He convincingly dismissed Nas’ entire career, even one of the gold standards for debut albums. And, yanno, the whole baby mama thing.
Sorry, but it’s hard for me to say you won a battle when you needed three verses to handle one, or when one side can embarrass the other without breaking a sweat. Yeah, Nas was all fiery on “Ether,” but it sounded like a bunch of lunchroom insults from someone mad enough to fight. Give me the cold, patronizing efficiency of “Takeover” any day.
KHALID: For me, the No. 1 issue that I had with “Takeover” was that it came off like a diatribe from a salty ex-supporter. Like Jay looked up to Nas, and then felt let down because he didn’t live up to whatever standards that he had for him. Almost like how cousins relate. A good deal of the stuff that Jay was saying was just his personal opinion. Nas only had one good album? That wasn’t true at all; there was no proof of that. And yes, Nastradamus was filled with struggle, but no more than In My Lifetime. That joint was weak. Nobody can convince me that “I Know What Girls Like” isn’t one of the top 20 worst songs in rap history. I bought the album first week out, and then took it back to the store and exchanged it for the Soul In The Hole (real heads recognize) soundtrack.
Even people who didn’t like Nas, didn’t think his career was over. That was one person’s consideration, nothing more. While the stuff Nas was saying – Jay was biting Biggie’s lyrics, putting the argument out there that he’s better than Biggie; Jay’s constant dismissal of women, sounding very misogynistic; KRS already using the name “Blueprint” for an album title – these really happened. This isn’t just innuendo; it’s real. There’s proof. I feel like people were so caught up in Jay-Z idolatry that they just sorta glossed over that. And as far as the baby moms stuff, I mean yeah, that’s a bad look on Nas. Ideally, you’d like to be able to control your exes, but sometimes you can’t. If you’re beefing with them, they might try and get you back in the worst way. But that doesn’t add to the song, at all. Am I supposed to care what some random woman is doing? Is she coming to my place next? No? Then, so what? Again, dudes out here want Jay to succeed so much that it starts getting weird.
BOMANI: It’s interesting you used “diatribe” to describe “Takeover,” because that’s exactly the word I’d use to disparage “Ether.” And I wouldn’t deny that “Ether” hit some real points, like the use of Big’s lyrics and all of that. But we’re still talking about a song that used, as a “diss,” the fact that Jay can’t grow a mustache? And can Nas, after going with the “H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo,” really take the moral high ground on misogyny? We’re talking about the dude who did “Oochie Wally,” right? You know, the song where some dude named Horse had a better verse than Nas? (Vince's note: This is when it gets tricky with battles. Making a better crafted, more nuanced song doesn't always win you the battle...it's often bluster and Nas had the bluster. It comes down to preferences. Do you like a seething, measured takedown? Or, do you dig a frothy-mouthed assault?)
I also think it’s unfair to credit Nas for what he said that was true and not acknowledge the accuracy in what Jay said to Nas. I suppose there was plenty of innuendo, but there wasn’t verifiable fact there?
To me, it was Nas’ “Hit ’Em Up.” Sure, there was lots of passion and anger, but so much of it was irrational, to the point where I tuned it out. And that’s before we get to that mediocre-at-best beat.
Last thing for this entry – I’m not a blind Jay-Z supporter. I agree that In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 had about four stinkers (the rest was heat, though), and I didn’t like a Jay album after Vol. 1 until The Blueprint. It was “Takeover” that made me think that maybe, just maybe, the dude I’d been waiting to hear for seven years had returned. (Vince's note: You are sleepy-time with Hard Knock Life, if only for "Reservoir Dogs.")
KHALID: Here’s the thing, you saying that “Ether” “hit some real points” is actually glossing over what Nas said, which as I mentioned before, has always seemed curious to me. I’ve seen other people do the same thing, and I’ve called them on it. To me, “Takeover” has fatal flaws because of that. Jay spent several years eating off of Biggie’s legacy, and in many ways, copied his whole style. He’s even dressed like him on the Hard Knock Life album cover.
Another thing: Jay’s line about Nas “being top 10 to not mentioned at all”... Again, what is he talking about? Do people recall late ’90s/early ’00s hip-hop and what was considered quality music at the time? People were co-signing dudes like DMX, JA Rule and Trick Daddy, after all. Those dudes had their moments (certainly X, who I liked though he never was a lyrical dude), but for Jay to act like Nas was inconsequential is just absurd. And yeah, Horse probably did have a better verse than him on “Oochie Wally,” but Jay was getting bodied on tracks all the time during that era. Em on “Renegade” and Beans on “Where Have You Been,” just for example. (In fact, Jay just straight up started rhyming like Beans not too long after this -- same cadence, same flow and everything.)
But for me, the biggest transgression was when he tried to clown Nas for “trying to kick knowledge.” Really? Trying to knock a dude for attempting to insert usable, or at least uplifting, info into their music is really a giant sucker move. I like Jay’s music; he’s without question an all-timer, but you can’t do that. Especially, if so much of your music is filled with crack tales from the ’80s and ’90s and the glamour and excitement brought forth from that kind of life. I appreciate the narrative tone and the storytelling and the rags to riches moments, but gimme a damn break. In my life, I’ve known both dealers and users and the destruction caused is profoundly evil. That he talks about it so much always made him seem sort of weak in my eyes. Is he mad that Nas isn’t doing what he does? What exactly is that line even supposed to mean?
BOMANI: Oh, here’s the big reason Jay killed Nas for trying to “kick knowledge”: Nas has never appeared to be that knowledgeable. He’s a bit of a rapping savant. He can write his ass off, and he tells amazing stories, but he tries to get deep and profound and often falls flat. People love “I Gave You Power” because he ran an extended gun metaphor, but listen to Organized Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet” and tell me how far ahead of the game Nas was with that. After this whole beef, he did “I Can,” which was littered with factual inaccuracies; a particularly damning thing to say about a song that was intended to educate children. That wasn’t a flaw of “Takeover.” That was a salient critique. You don’t get an E for Effort when you try to educate people. If what you’re saying doesn’t hold water, you get killed for it. And you shouldn’t get killed according to a standard unique to rappers. You get killed according to the standard of anyone who tries to speak from a position of intellectual authority, and Nas doesn’t have that. (Vince’s note: "Stray Bullet" is a great example, but that shouldn't be used to diminish "I Gave You Power.” Maybe Nas' greatest kicked-knowledge came after "Takover" with "Second Childhood.")
KHALID: The thing is this: Is there any thought that maybe Nas didn’t want to steal the show on “Oochie Wally”? Or maybe he was just being lazy. Or maybe it was just a garbage verse. Either way, so what? Remember, it wasn’t on one of his albums; it was on a compilation called QB’s Finest. Seems like a reach to say that this is an example of Nas falling off. Especially since, frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find many instances of Nas getting killed on a track. Just doesn’t happen often. Nas shows and proves with a killer level of regularity. He’s been on tracks with everyone from Raekwon to Kool G Rap to Scarface, just to name a few. Just because Horse got his (and let’s not front like this dude Horse had a truly classic verse or anything) on one random song, doesn’t mean anything in regards to Nas’ catalogue. It is entirely unimportant. People use it as a blow to his credibility when really, it’s like criticizing Coca-Cola because New Coke failed to resonate with consumers. Even the greats have a misstep once or twice.
Secondly, I actually agree with your point about not giving out an “E for effort,” when artists use music to educate their fan bases. It’s important that the information being disseminated is factually strong, with verifiable components. Nas doesn’t get a pass on that, but at the same time, it’s hard for me criticize Nas on that when it’s coming from Jay-Z. Your man Shawn Carter can’t eat off that plate. His arms aren’t long enough to box with anyone on that point. If that point was coming from 3000 or Common, then alright, we might have something. We could at least argue with force. With Jay, it sounds petty. Like when nutritionists go into impoverished “food desert” areas and try to educate people on how to eat fruits and vegetables. There’s a bit of resentment, because people don’t like to feel as though they are being talked down to (even if the information is true and helpful). Obviously, Nas, or anyone, should hire a fact-checker and make sure everything is kosher (or halal) before you start droppin’ jewels, but what’s the alternative? Not saying anything? That’s a cop-out if I ever heard one. If Jay had the ability to do so, he should have made his own version of “Poison” or “Black Girl Lost” or “I Gave You Power” or more recently “Sly Fox.” Instead of “Money, Cash, Hoes” or “Money Ain’t A Thing” or “I Just Wanna Love You.” He’s basically criticizing Nas’ shot selection, when he shot 0 for 0 (unless you wanna count the overrated Hard Knock Life title track) from the field.
Before we close this out, I just want to reiterate that I like a great deal of Jay’s music, and just because his catalogue is deficient on what I call “race music,” doesn’t mean I’m taking a crap on his legacy. All I’m saying is, the “Takeover” is one of those songs that benefited from hypebeats, and their dedication to hero worship. It was a dude, who at the time was feeling himself, taking shots at another dude who people generally had rated higher than him. Maybe it was insecurity and he wanted to dismiss him, even though he’d been name-dropping Nas for years. It’s not like he had to mention him on “Where I’m From,” but he did, and we all know why.