Rivalries can fade from public interest, but this does not mean they cease to exist. In Ryan Murphy’s television program Feud, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland says, “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.” She was speaking about the iconic feud between actress Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, but my mind returned to the epic feud of JAY-Z and Nas.
The public’s curiosity around JAY-Z and Nas’s feud might have weakened since 2001 when JAY-Z released “Takeover” and Nas released “Ether,” which is considered by some as one of the best rap beefs in history. But this past weekend makes one wonder if the feud is still on, and has Nas undoubtedly lost in more ways than music?
Within 24 hours of each other, JAY-Z and Nas both released their newest projects. JAY-Z released a joint album with Beyoncé entitled Everything Is Love. Nas released a Kanye West-produced album called Nasir.
There are stark differences: Nas’s Nasir feels distinctly lonely and self-centered. From the album title to the lyrical content, Nas has created a project that pours into the myth of him, but fails to touch on anything human. He gives advice, pseudo-intellectual ideas, and brags. On the album opener “Not For Radio,” Nas declares it Escobar Season (a reference to his alias). With operatic choir vocals in the background, Nas goes on rants accompanied by Puff Daddy that mixes braggadocio with shallow pro-black sentiments that feel good to hear, but aren’t actually creating any type of politic or critique. “White Label” is embarrassingly shallow. Nas’s flow and production is sharp, but the content is not something you’d think a 40-something year-old man might be concerned with. He raps, “Chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter/ Blouse-ripper, ass-gripper, that dig-you-out nigga. I ain't gon' hold you, old head gave me old news.”
Nas does not grapple with the most relevant and controversial news surrounding him which is that he allegedly emotionally and physically abused his ex-wife Kelis for almost a decade. The theory and poetry he attempts to deliver fails to reach any substantial place in the spirit because it feels contradictory. How can one admire or take advice from someone that couldn’t even sustain a relationship with his lover and mother of his kids without emotional and physical violence?
On “Takeover,” JAY-Z raps, “Your shit is garbage/ What you trying to kick, knowledge?" More now than ever, Nas seems to not be able to escape that critique now that his personal life, public art, and politics contradict one another so severely.
JAY-Z and Everything Is Love shouldn’t be seen as the opposite of Nasir, but a foil. The more we understand what the two New York rappers have in common, the more their latest projects highlight the different things men can do with their power.
JAY-Z has been heavily criticized for the way he arrived at his healing. Through much of what Beyoncé and Shawn Carter have revealed on Everything Is Love, it’s clear that he put his wife through emotional turmoil. At this point, they seemingly have arrived at a place that is not exactly perfect, but stronger and more peaceful than their past. This is, at least, what we are pushed to believe based on their artistic offerings. Everything Is Love is the pinnacle of this idea.
Unlike Nas on Nasir, JAY-Z made room for a woman’s perspective on his project either by literally letting her speak or by grappling with his relationship with women. JAY-Z might be many things, but as it concerns Beyoncé and the music they make together, he is not competitive or narcissistic. He knows she’ll likely steal the show and he is often there for interesting contrasts, to flesh stories out, and to fill blank spaces with witty bars. If Watch The Throne was a boxing match with Kanye West, Everything is Love is a ballet dance with the prima ballerina. Often, JAY-Z just sounds grateful to be on the same track and his job is to not outdo Beyoncé, but to keep up.
JAY-Z does deal with the darkest things we know about him from infidelity to failed friendships. If you are interested in consuming any of his poetry and theory as advice, it is easier because it feels like JAY-Z is coming from a place of experience and reflection. While on Nasir, it feels as though Nas is attempting to make us believe a character that is decades old now. But that mask is cracking, in part, due to a revealing interview. In April, Hollywood Unlocked interviewer Jason Lee asked Kelis if the Queens rapper was obsessed with his public image. She responded, “He is obsessed with his image, which is why people think that he’s phenomenal and I’m some raging bitch because he gives a damn and I don’t care.”
Kelis offers the idea that Nas’s public persona is all persona. This is a detrimental accusation for an artist like Nas whose success has been dependent on relatability and trust from fans who believe what they are hearing isn’t necessarily non-fiction, but heavily based off of a true and autobiographical story. But how can one preach black empowerment when they face accusations of having to be forced to take care of their black son and black baby’s mother? How can one preach black love when they are accused of physically and verbally harming the mother of their child? The non-response to these accusations helps the listener realize Nas and his projects might just be entire works of fiction, while the storyteller lives a life in stark opposition. Perhaps, Nas just approaches his art as an actor and actors don’t have to work out their personal problems in their work. They just have to play the role they were given believably. Unfortunately for Nas, his role is no longer believable.
Men—especially cis, straight, and wealthy men—get room to be forgiven and to heal. Often the healing is assisted by the very people they wounded. This is patriarchal power, even when it is done with the hope of optimal well-being. If people seen as women and femmes were to exhibit the same behavior, there would be no forgiveness and usually a interpersonal and societal crucifiction. Women and femmes always lose, but restoration is abdundalty available for men.
And this is what makes the JAY-Z and Nas feud about pain. Even with Nas’s amount of access to male privilege, wealth, and stardom, he still did not find it necessary to at least attempt to explain these disturbing accusations. JAY-Z knew once the footage of a confrontation between him and Solange was leaked, he would have to explain the situation to restore trust with fanbase and the general public. This obligation was made even clearer by Beyoncé’s 2016 magnum opus, Lemonade, a record that explored the heartbreak and trauma JAY-Z caused in their romantic relationship. JAY-Z responded with the deeply personal 4:44 and took public accountability for the pain he caused and examined it on the album.
Nas creatively chose a cowardly and dishonest place to go which is painful. It is painful to realize as someone who is a sympathizer for Kelis and the abuse she underwent. It is also painful to realize as a former supporter of Nas that not only is the person you coveted toxic in ways that feel unforgivable, but they don’t respect or care enough about your support to even attempt to assuage these feelings. Who won 2001’s battle between JAY-Z and Nas might be debatable, but in 2018 it feels clear that Nas has been taken over completely.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.