JAY-Z dropped his collaborative album with Beyoncé, Everything is Love, last year, in the midst of their ‘On the Run II’ tour – a day after Nas released his Kanye West-produced comeback album NASIR. The Internet soon became alight with theories that the drop date was an intentional jab at Nas, harkening back to a feud that the two New York rappers were entangled in for years in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
We previously broke down the beef between Pusha-T and Drake, but this feud is absolutely legendary, with many rappers naming it their all-time favorite. JAY-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, even had to step in at one point. If you thought Pusha-T got personal with Drake on “The Story of Adidon,” wait until you hear what Nas and JAY-Z were saying about each other back in the day…
If you aren’t familiar, you’ll soon see why the feud between JAY-Z and Nas is the prototypical rap beef, igniting the hip-hop community in New York City and around the world, and even spawning its own verb to denote one rapper obliterating another with a diss track.
Without further ado, dig into our brief history of the beef between JAY-Z and Nas below.
Chapter One: The Beef Beginnings
It all started way back in 1996, when Nas reportedly failed to show up to a recording session for JAY-Z’s track ”Bring It On” from his debut record Reasonable Doubt. The album dropped later that year, and in the absence of Nas, producer Ski Beatz sampled Nas’ line from “The World is Yours” (Pete Rock remix) on another song on the project called “Dead Presidents II.”
Nas’ second album, It Was Written, arrived a month later. Its opening track “The Message” includes the first of many perceived shots at JAY-Z with “Lex with TV sets the minimum.” What does a Lexus with a TV inside it have to do with anything? Well, JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt included many references to the luxury car. He likened his mind to a Lexus on “Can I Live” (“My mind is infested, with sick thoughts that circle like a Lexus”) and the music video for “Dead Presidents II” features a Lexus GS.
Nas has since confirmed that the line refers to JAY-Z. He told 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.”
Then in 1997, JAY-Z sampled Nas’ voice once again on “Rap Game/Crack Game,” another friendly nod to his rival. However, he also dropped a line on ”Where I’m From,” which many consider to be his first shot fired at Nas: “I’m from where n***** pull your card, and argue all day about/Who’s the best MC’s, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas.” In March of that year, Biggie Smalls passed away, and JAY-Z did not hesitate in making a claim for the New York hip-hop throne on his song “The City is Mine.”
Chapter Two: The Bleek Beef
Some claim that Roc-A-Fella artist and JAY-Z protégé Memphis Bleek was brought into the feud with his first single from his Coming of Age album, “Memphis Bleek is…,” which has arguable similarities to Nas’ “Nas is Like…” Most notably, however, is the track “What You Think of That”, where Bleek raps, “My whole team rock rocks, we don’t speak to cats/I’mma ball till I fall what you think of that?”
Then Nas fired back with “Nastradamus”, directly referring to the lyrics on “What You Think of That” – “I need an encore y’all, you should welcome me back/You wanna ball till you fall? I can help you with that.”
Memphis Bleek decided to step things up with a diss that could not be misinterpreted. On “My Mind Right” he references Nas’ second studio album It Was Written: “Your lifestyle’s written/So who you supposed to be, play your position,” while also assuring everyone he thinks very little of his rival: “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.”
Nas responded to Bleek with “Stillmatic”, referring to several members of the Roc-A-Fella crew – JAY-Z, Beanie Sigel, and of course Memphis Bleek. “Rip the Freeway, shoot through Memphis with Money Bags/Stop in Philly, order cheesesteaks and eat Beans fast,” and then going directly to HOV, asking, “Is he H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo?”
Then, JAY-Z performed a freestyle at Hot 97’s Summer Jam taking jabs at Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Nas, and people were shook. This is where the beef really gets juicy. A polished version of the song, ”Takeover,” appeared on his 2001 album The Blueprint, and JAY-Z did not come to play. On the Kanye West-produced track, he calls Nas a has-been, saying he has “one hot album every ten year average,” questions his street cred, and basically comes for him at every level. To many rap fans, Nas’ music career seemed dead and gone after “Takeover”.
Chapter 3: The One “Ether” to Rule Them All
It soon became clear that Nas would not go down without a fight. On his 2001 album Stillmatic, he unleashed “Ether” – a diss track that would go down in history.
Nas responded to JAY-Z’s claims of being a has been by reminding him he’s been in the rap game much longer: “I got this, locked since Nine-One (1991), I am the truest/ Name a rapper that I ain’t influenced.” He then proceeds to attack his street cred and accuses him of copying his style: “In ’88, you was gettin’ chased to your buildin’/ Callin’ my crib, and I ain’t even give you my numbers/ All I did was give you a style for you to run with.” He also accuses Jay of selling out, “Y’all n*ggas deal with emotions like bitches/ What’s sad is I love you cause you’re my brother, you traded your soul for riches.”
He called JAY-Z ugly, a misogynist, employed a lot of unsavory homophobic slurs against him, and alluded to an affair he had with Foxy Brown. He also mentions that Eminem outshined him on his own song “Renegade” and that HOV stole his rhyming skills from Biggie.
Stillmatic on the whole was heralded a proper comeback by critics and fans alike, after a string of lackluster releases from the Queens rapper. The beef and the album led to Nas’ Lost Tapes being released, then God’s Son which, to many, cemented his status as NYC’s best MC for years to come. People were shook by “Takeover”, but “Ether” was on another level.
Chapter 4: Post-”Ether”
After being absolutley obliterated by Nas, JAY-Z was not going to let him have the last word with “Ether.” Enter “Supa Ugly,” which samples Nas’ own “Got Ur Self A…” and Dr. Dre’s “Bad Intentions.”
JAY-Z dishes out his fair share of insults, but he twisted the knife on “Supa Ugly,” bragging about having an alleged three year long affair with Nas’ girlfriend Carmen Bryan.
A lot of people thought Jay took things way too far, his own mother Gloria Carter even called in to local radio station Hot 97 saying he should apologize to Nas and his family. HOV called in soon after, apologizing to his mother and any female listeners he may have offended with his lyrics.
In the two rappers’ native New York City, the atmosphere was particularly intense. Radio stations like Hot 97 would encourage the feud by playing “Ether” and “Supa Ugly” back to back. At one point, they even took a poll about the beef, with 58% of listeners saying they preferred “Ether” to “Supa Ugly”. The consensus seemed to point to Nas as the winner.
“Ether” has since become an emblematic diss track, with rappers reinterpreting it for their beef purposes. A recent example would be Remy Ma’s “shETHER” aimed at Nicki Minaj. Since Nas dropped the song, ‘ether’ has been frequently used as a verb to denote one rapper asserting their dominance over another using a diss track.
The beef continued to sizzle, and JAY-Z attacked Nas again on the title track of his Blueprint 2 album, claiming he’s more generous than him, once again questioning his street cred, and even references his “Supa Ugly” apology encouraged by his mother: “My momma can’t save you this time / N***** is history.”
After Nas’ response on the “Last Real N**** Alive,” where he compares the beef between he and JAY-Z to Scarface and suggests HOV is nothing more than a footnote in the history of New York hip-hop, the two basically had a ceasefire, with only minor shots being fired and Jay (temporarily) retiring with The Black Album.
Chapter 5: The Reconciliation
Four years after “Ether,” Nas & JAY-Z decided to end their beef in front of a sold out crowd at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Ruthorford, New Jersey during JAY-Z’s ‘I Declare War’ tour in October 2005.
Many fans thought that the tour would see HOV coming for his hip-hop enemies, but instead, he decided to reconcile with Nas onstage. The two performed “Dead Presidents” and “The World is Yours,” with JAY-Z declaring, “All that beef sh–is done, we had our fun,” he said. “Let’s get this money.”
A year later, Nas ended his deal with Columbia Records and signed with Def Jam, now headed by JAY-Z. Shortly after, they officially teamed up for the first time on “Black Republican” off Nas’ Hip-Hop is Dead.
Although some people on the Internet thought that JAY-Z was trying to reheat the early millenium beef by dropping his album with Beyoncé the day after NASIR, it seems unlikely that this is the case, especially since the two are friends, with JAY-Z showing up at Nas’ most recent birthday back in September, and the duo performing together in the past few years, mostly notably at Coachella 2014, pictured above. Regardless, we hope you enjoyed this opportunity to slice through this finely aged slab of grade A rap beef.
For more rap beef history, check out our timeline of Drake and Pusha-T’s recent feud right here.