The real reason why Megan beat Nicki and Jay beat Nas
OPINION: Rap battles have rules, y'all.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The thing that annoys me most about the conversation around the battle between Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj is this: People saying hey, it’s a rap beef, so they can say anything because any diss they can imagine is fair game. Let’s accept that concept for the sake of argument. My retort would then be: You’re missing the point entirely. The point that MCs in a battle are allowed to say anything is irrelevant. The relevant question is what is the impact of the things that they say?
The reason why Meg won the battle is because she said something that everyone registered as truthful and impactful. She mentioned Megan’s Law, which clearly embarrassed Minaj to the nth degree because Megan’s Law has a very real impact on the life of her husband. One of the many reasons why Minaj lost the battle is because in “Bigfoot,” an entire song attempting to diss Meg, she never once says anything that embarrasses Meg. Sure, Minaj is allowed to say you’re lying about the Tory Lanez incident and your mother is dead and you’re “lying on your dead mama,” but few people believe that she was lying after a court of law found Lanez guilty. And what does Meg’s mother being deceased have to do with anything? How is that embarrassing to Meg? Many have said it’s inappropriate for Minaj to bring up the fact that Meg’s mother passed away, but more to the point, how does that fact embarrass Meg? For disses to land, they have to be embarrassing, and they can only be embarrassing if they’re factual or at least are perceived as factual.
For example, on “No Vaseline” when Ice Cube said the remaining members of N.W.A were getting screwed out of their money by their white manager, that diss was mortifying for them only because it was true. On “Hit Em Up” when Tupac said he’d slept with Biggie’s wife, that was embarrassing to Big only because many people believed it was true. If we’re playing the dozens and someone says “Your mama’s so fat …” but everyone knows your mother is skinny then that diss means nothing. I need this concept to be clear to y’all because we’re heading into a topic where that has been lost, and we’ve decided to judge a winner based on vibes.
Now that we understand the framework of battling culture, we can talk about one of the biggest battles in hip-hop history — one that many hip-hop fans have gotten completely wrong: Jay-Z vs. Nas. Most hip-hop fans will tell you that Nas won. They are dead wrong. Let’s dig into the songs.
What did Jay-Z say about Nas on “The Takeover”? At the time, in 2001, Jay was the undisputed hottest MC in the game. Nas had not released an album in about two years, which was a long time, and he hadn’t released a hot album in about five years, not since his sophomore album, “It Was Written,” dropped in 1996. Many thought Nas had fallen off, and when I interviewed Nas in the late ’90s for Rolling Stone, I found out why. He told me he no longer felt motivated to be a great rapper. At that time, he no longer cared about being the best MC. That’s why the quality of his music had waned. He was unmotivated, and people in the game could feel that.
In “The Takeover,” Jay attacks that. He said, “Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage. Fell from top 10 to not mentioned at all.” At the time, that was completely true, and it rang out powerfully. This wasn’t a generalized “You suck”; it was a very specific and accurate assessment of where Nas was at that moment: no longer considered a top rapper. That was embarrassing because it was true.
Jay went on to diss Nas’ career in the streets before the music. “You ain’t live it,” he said, “You witnessed it from your folks’ pad. You scribbled in your notepad and created your life.” I interviewed Nas about his life, and he told me he’d dabbled in the drug game before he was a rapper for sure, but he was never more than a street-level salesman for a very brief period of time. But his music may have led you to believe otherwise so to have someone like Jay, who was very deep in the streets for many years, call him out like that was embarrassing because it was true. You may be noticing a pattern.
Then Jay went back to dissing Nas’s music — “I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong. You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song.” In the context of hip-hop that’s an incredible diss — I am so much of a better musician than you that I can take your voice and make a better song than you could.
Jay hammered the idea that Nas’ music had fallen off since his incredible debut album, which was not untrue. When he said Nas had “one hot album every 10-year average,” he backhanded the man’s entire catalog. At the time, that was a bit of an exaggeration — it concedes the genius of “Illmatic” while underplaying the greatness of “It Was Written” — but it had the ring of truth.
This is a series of disses that are embarrassing because they are truthful, and they’re all germane to the subject of MCs making music and former street guys talking about what they did in the drug game. On “The Takeover,” Jay-Z scored many points. What did Nas say in retort?
For one thing, after years of not doing much musically, for Nas to respond to Jay at all was exciting. It was the return of a once-great artist. It felt like David going up against the man who was then hip-hop’s Goliath. Nas had the wind of an underdog at his back. People love to root for the underdog and in 2001, Nas was definitely the underdog in a battle against Jay. But that’s all vibes. The important point is what did he choose to say about Jay on “Ether”?
His first real diss on “Ether” is to say “Gay-Z and Cockafella Records,” which is some schoolyard childish ish. Gay-Z? Really? He then called Jay-Z a camel referring to an idea that was widely joked about back then that Jay resembled Joe Camel, the cigarette advertising mascot. This is the first of many disses of the man’s looks. A man dissing another man’s looks is weird.
Nas said, “KRS already made an album called ‘Blueprint,’” as a diss to Jay’s album, “The Blueprint.” Yes, in 1989 KRS-One released “Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop,” but so what? Nas said, “First Biggie’s your man then you got the nerve to say you’re better than BIG.” Uh, what? Yes, Jay and Big were close friends. Yes, on “Hola Hovito,” Jay said, “If I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closest one,” but Jay’s respect for Big was always clear. When he rapped Big’s verses, it was about showing the late MC love and respect and keeping his verses alive. Dissing Jay for talking about Big doesn’t prove anything.
In the final verse, Nas said, “You traded your soul for riches,” referencing Jay’s pop songs like “Sunshine.” Uh, OK, but who gets into the music biz to not make money? Is he saying Jay went pop and turned his back on real hip-hop? I don’t think anyone saw it like that. Nas said, “You seem to be only concerned with dissin’ women,” referencing Jay’s oft-repeated themes of not wanting to give women money and not trusting women and being pimpish. OK, sure. Nas continued, “Were you abused as a child? Scared to smile? They called you ugly?” Again, Nas is focused on Jay’s looks. What?
Nas said, “In ’88, you was getting chased through your building, calling my crib, and I ain’t even give you my numbers.” Does that ring true? Jay-Z the big drug distributor was in an emergency and he was calling Nas for help even though he was not yet a recording artist?
Nas said, “You 36 [years old] in a karate class, you Tae Bo, ho,” and I guess that’s a little embarrassing to Jay. Back then he was open about taking boxing classes at Chelsea Piers from time to time.
Late in the song, Nas got in lots of homophobic disses. He said, “Rocafella died of AIDS, that was the end of his chapter, and that’s the guy y’all chose to name your company after? Put it together, I rock hoes, y’all rock fellas.” Jay’s label Roc-A-Fella refers to a man who was big in the streets when Jay was a kid. He reportedly died of AIDS, but this is what we’re doing? Nas ends with more homophobic disses and more disses of Jay’s appearance. He likens Jay to J.J. Evans from “Good Times” without realizing that his endless discussion of Jay’s looks is strange.
I’m struggling to find the disses on “Ether” that really land. “You’re gay” and “you’re ugly” aren’t it. (It’s also strange to fixate on both “you’re gay” and “you’re ugly” because talking about another man’s looks is … something.) Nas had months to write “Ether.” “The Takeover” came out in September and his retort dropped in December. These are the best disses he could come up with?
Yes, “ether” became a slang term in hip-hop because of the song so that’s a win, but the song itself has aged terribly. At this point in American society, you could not play “Ether” in mixed company because it’s filled with homophobia. I think many felt like Nas won because it was shocking to see the return of an MC who many thought was over, and his energy and bravado in standing up to the then king of hip-hop was inspiring. But when you really look at the lyrics of the two songs, it’s not even close.
That said, the Jay-Nas battle was great for hip-hop — it reinvigorated Nas and put him back on the path to making great music. No one else could ever say Nas had one hot album every 10-year average. I just hope that going forward, we all can learn to judge battles based on how many truthful disses are said rather than vibes. Because Jay beat Nas just like Meg beat Nicki. Q.E.D.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
Never miss a beat: Get our daily stories straight to your inbox with theGrio’s newsletter.