In 2001, Jay found himself on top of rap's hierarchy. His LP The Blueprint, which came on the heels of the double-platinum The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, became an instant classic when it was released on September 11.
Meanwhile, Nas was slowly finding himself being cast out of the kingdom. With the exception of "Oochie Wally," his QB Finest compilation, released in late 2000, received little acclaim, and he wasn't exactly doing too well before then. Nastradamaus (1999) was panned as his worst ever. He found himself falling out of favor with fans and critics and was equally unpopular with the Roc-A-Fella camp.
He had been dissed on Memphis Bleek's "My Mind Right" and by State Property on Funkmaster Flex's Hot 97 radio show. The final dirt was supposed to be kicked on his grave after Jay-Z boasted at Hot 97's Summer Jam concert in June, "Nas don't want it with Hov," previewing The Blueprint's "Takeover."
"It was a thing, you know, when Jay did the Summer Jam, everybody in the streets was like, 'I know you gonna get at him,' " Nas said. "So I got at him with the freestyle joint ['Stillmatic.']"
His retaliation, which came at the entire Roc-A-Fella camp and called Jay a homosexual, among other things, received some airplay on Hot 97 and then was taken off the playlist.
"Hot 97 backed off of it," Nas lamented. "I heard that Jay had somebody ... call the radio [station] ... so that my record wouldn't be played. Now, that I don't understand. If we come to fight, we come to fight. That's like calling the cops, you know.
"And so Hot 97, after my freestyle, they banned all dis records," he continued. "And I can't knock them, because they don't wanna be responsible for another crazy, violent loss in the hip-hop community. They had to do their job. But I felt like he had his shot at me, so I just needed a fair shot back."
By the time "Ether" hit the streets, Hot 97 had already lifted its ban (the Jadakiss-Beanie Sigel battle on wax had many listeners tuning in) and Nas had the perfect opportunity to re-establish himself.
"Oh, definitely, I was surprised," DJ Kay Slay said. "I'm not going to lie. I really thought that Jay-Z had finished Nas. It was really terrible because a lot of people really slept on Nas. Nas came back and shocked the world. It's a whole other look for him, and he's looking big right now."
It didn't seem like a big deal at the time the lines "You wanna ball 'til you fall?/ I can help you with that/ You want beef?/ I could let a slug melt in your hat" on the title track of Nastradamus. Memphis Bleek took the lines to heart, though, saying that Nas was spewing venom at him (allegations the Queens rapper denies).
Still, that wasn't enough to raise Jay's ire. For years, people have inferred that he and Nas had been going at it with each other on wax, but since neither one said names or publicly denounced the other (with the exception of The Blueprint, Jay has found a way to give Nas props on every one of his albums, whether it be by sampling his voice or direct reference), it was all speculation. That is, until "Takeover," which Jay says was revenge for his foe's "reckless talk" on a California radio station.
"When I first heard it, it was like an eruption: 'Wow.' It was crazy," Nas' A&R man Rich Nice said. "It's always been brewing, it's always been in the air, you know. The jabs have been poked out there. But it was just crazy to hear a real joint that was like, 'This is for you.' It just opened my eyes. ... I ran to the phone and was like, 'I can't believe it.' "
"I spoke to Nas about 'Takeover,' " Funkmaster Flex said. "Personally I didn't think that Nas could come back, because the vibe I got from him when we were talking about it was that he didn't really want to deal with it all. I mean, I'm going to give my personal opinion as Flex from talking to him. I thought that Nas was shook. 'Ether' did surprise me and catch me very much off guard. It turned out that he had the balls to say, 'I'm going to make this record and make it happen.' "
As Jay pointed out during his recent "Unplugged" performance, the battle is the essence of hip-hop from the Kool Moe Dee and Bizzy Bee battles of the 1970s to the verbal rumbles between KRS-One and MC Shan in the '80s and the sparring between Ice Cube and N.W.A in the '90s. And while it's supposed to stay at a street level, it can affect careers.
The Tupac and Biggie feud wasn't a conventional battle (although Pac put out several dis records, Big never responded), but both saw a leap in their record sales in the wake of their beef. Meanwhile, Canibus never recovered from losing his battle with LL Cool J. He currently doesn't have a record deal with a major label.
"Has it affected his career? Nah," Dash said about Jay's rivalry with Nas. "It's just a battle it's not really that big."
Nas also concedes that he has bigger fish to fry. When asked what was more pressing when making Stillmatic making a great album or one-upping Jay Nas said, "It definitely wasn't the Jay-Z thing. The Jay-Z thing was ... I mean, I knew it was becoming bigger by the day. When he put out the 'Takeover' I didn't realize how many people would be into that. So, it was just a point of putting the record together, saying the right thing, you know. Addressing it right so I could let 'em know it's not happening. It is no takeover.
"And I thought about the word 'takeover.' He felt like he had to take over Nas to take over hip-hop. It's a compliment. It was more pressure dealing with so many fans who are quick to write you off as being wack because I didn't meet, I didn't outdo Illmatic (Nas' highly praised 1994 debut). It was a lot of that I was thinking about. But I couldn't let that affect my writing. I couldn't let that affect my creative part, because it would have hurt [Stillmatic]. I just had to do me."