SORRY NOT SORRY: The Nas vs JAY-Z Beef Explained

SORRY NOT SORRY: The Nas vs JAY-Z Beef Explained

The Queens rappers are bringing their rivalry to an end…

From the outside, New York is a colossal, almost infinite space, a warren of streets, alleys, communities, and boroughs. The lived experience, though, is a little different – in each locality, the boundaries are tightly defined, meaning that in real terms, almost everybody in your area will know everybody else.

It’s worth keeping in mind when looking at the twin trajectories of Nas and JAY-Z. Two iconic rappers of a similar age, and from a similar areas – Queens - Nas broke out first, with his iconic debut album ‘Illmatic’ remaining the LP most often cited as rap’s finest. JAY-Z emerged from the shadow of Biggie Smalls, and when he gained the limelight he never let go – currently a billionaire, he’s without doubt one of the most commercially successful musicians of his or any other era.

Yet for almost two decades the pair couldn’t be in the same room. What started as friendly rivalry broke out into a war of words, with the Nas vs JAY-Z conflict standing as one of hip-hop’s longest lasting grandstand bouts.

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Friction was there from the start. Nas skipped out on a session for Hov’s debut album ‘Reasonable Doubt’, causing the production to simply lift a vocal sample in lieu of any new bars. Nas took this as a slight, and when his second album ‘It Was Written’ arrived it featured a friendly shot at JAY-Z, and his habit of driving a lexus with TVs installed on the inside.

The sparring match continued in a respectful fashion, until Roc-A-Fella artist Memphis Bleek was dragged into the centre. The JAY-Z protégé echoed – intentionally or otherwise – ‘Nas Is Like…’ on his single ‘Memphis Bleek Is…’ causing Nas to fire back with his lyrics on ‘Nastradamus’ cut ‘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."  

It was Memphis Bleek, then, who arguably fired the first full shot of the Nas vs JAY-Z beef. His song ‘My Mind Right’ took aim at Nas and his faltering position post debut album, sparking the ‘Stillmatic’ reply, which drew Hov into the rapper’s sights: “Is he H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo?”

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Refusing to hold back, JAY-Z used a Hot 97 Freestyle to speak his mind, tearing down his one-time friend and rap peer. Finessing the freestyle for ‘Takover’ on his 2001 album ‘The Blueprint’, he ripped Nas apart, labelling him a has-been who only has a good album every decade. Coming at a career low for his Queens rival, the words must have stung deep.

Rising to the challenge, Nas recorded ‘Ether’ which remains an unusually brutal moment in his catalogue. Swapping the Shakespearean dalliances of his debut for visceral street poetry, he called JAY-Z a sell-out, underlined Hov’s faltering start to his career, employed some homophobic slurs, and accused his Queens contemporary of misogyny. All in all, a firestorm: "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."

This is when the beef gets messy. Potshots come from all angles, with members of both rapper’s crews getting involved. ‘Supa Ugly’ saw JAY-Z bragging about a three-year long affair with Nas’ girlfriend Carmen Bryan, which sparked an unlikely peace figure – Hov’s mother dialled into to Hot 97 to request her son behave himself.

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Ultimately, it all came back to New York, and to their homes. In the cauldron of Queens, sides were taken, with stations such as Hot 97 playing the diss tracks back to back and encouraging listeners to phone in. JAY-Z attacked Nas on ‘The Blueprint 2’ sparking Nas to call him a footnote on hip-hop history with his reflective but brutal ‘The Last Real N*gga Alive’.

And then it fizzled out. JAY-Z retired, altered the spelling of his name, and then came back. Nas took time out, after a spell producing records that were arguably beneath his name. JAY-Z became showbiz royalty, launching TIDAL, and became a billionaire. To a new generation, the 90s heat that spawned the Queens pairing was a distant memory, with platforms such as SoundCloud affording a new, national (and international) approach.

Today, the two are once more back in parallel. JAY-Z took on ageing, guilt, loss, and survival with ‘4:44’ carving out a fresh identity for himself with his most creative album in a decade. Nas re-built his throne, with ‘The King’s Disease’ excising those inconsistent Millennial experiments for something more rounded.

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Perhaps that’s why they’ve finally been able to bury the hatchet. True elder statesmen, they’ve moved beyond that youthful need to trace your progress by competing against others. Last night – April 29th – JAY-Z shared a specially curated playlist dedicated to Nas’ music on TIDAL. This morning, the two appeared on the swaggering DJ Khaled cut ‘SORRY NOT SORRY’.

Nas’ verse is particularly revealing, discussing his finances, and revealing the extent of his gains through Bitcoin. And perhaps that’s the key, here – when Nas and JAY-Z first ended the beef back in 2005, they appeared together in New Jersey. JAY-Z told the crowd: "All that beef shit is done, we had our fun… Let's get this money."

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