Let's first set the scene, it’s September 11, 2001, a day Americans will always remember as the day the World Trade Center was attacked in New York City. 9/11 is also the day Rap fans worldwide will remember as the day Jay-Z dropped one of the most lethal, lyrical assaults in Hip-Hop history with the release of the “Takeover” off of his sixth studio album, The Blueprint.
Takeover, for good reason, is almost unanimously included in everyone’s top 5 diss track list of all time. Why? Because it was the final push that led to one of the most storied and lyrical rap beefs of all time. Hov flexed his muscles and delivered what he (and everyone else) believed to be a kill shot and final nail into the coffin that was Nas’ career. The second track off the Blueprint, the Takeover, took aim at Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Queensbridge legend Nas, and effectively broke down to audiences everywhere why Hov called himself the God MC and why the R.O.C. was really “runnin’ this rap Shit.”
Now, with all that said, let us take a look at why I feel the Takeover will forever be in the shadow of Nas’ response, Ether.
For the sake of my argument when discussing the Takeover we will only focus on the shots Jay took at Nas because I feel it is there where the track earns most of its merit with listeners. However, I won’t disregard his first two verses because let's face it, he was already steamrolling his competition before he even mentioned Nas’ name at the very end of the second verse. However, as calculated as we know Jay-Z to be, I believe it is here that he made his first mistake---he relegated Nas to a verse, albeit a long verse (32 bars compared to the previous two that contained 16) but a single verse nonetheless.
To be fair Nas was years removed from the critical acclaim of his 1994 debut album Illmatic. Since that time he showed flashes of greatness here and there on hits like “Hate me now”, and “If I ruled the world,” but many were already whispering of his decline. Hov took advantage of this fall off, and put Nas’ then status as a top tier MC under a microscope:
Those whispers became full blown screams after Jay-Z continued to meticulously peel back the layers of Nas’ career by elaborating on those earlier points. He then began to calculate Nas’ longevity to his performance by dividing the quality of his albums by the number of years he had in the game. In a sense insinuating Nas was merely a one-hit wonder. Like an attorney delivering his opening statements in court, Jay-Z showed poise and conviction, as he didn’t waste a bar.
Now, there are many factors that go into creating a diss track that make it truly effective. You have to attack your opponent in at least three of the four core areas; first with factual information, then you have to go at their skill level, talk about their street credibility (if it applies), and you have to humiliate them while simultaneously swaying public opinion.
Jay got Nas in three of these four areas. He hit him with some facts (many opinions, but I digress) about the quality of his past albums. He addressed his current lyrical skill level (“your shit is garbage/ what you tryin’ kick knowledge.”) And he exposed Nas’ street credibility by alleging that the vivid stories Nas painted in his raps were just that, stories. He made Nas seem like a kid who lived in the hood but only witnessed the dirt the real gangstas did. According to this formula, in my opinion, where he missed the mark, was adding humiliating information that would change public perception of Nas. Jay had the opportunity but chose to save that bullet for a later date, a costly mistake, and one that ultimately cost him the battle. You may remember Jay’s last two lines of the verse where he alluded to sleeping with Nas’ baby mother. Instead of exploring it any further, Jay left it alone and assumed he had the battle already won, in essence breaking Robert Greene’s 15th Law of Power which states to Crush Your Enemy Totally. In the end, he left Nas with too much room to recover.
The advantage Nas had in 2001 during this feud is an important factor that is nonexistent in today’s rap game, and it is essential to creating a masterful diss track; he had time. Nas took four months to respond with Ether. Nowadays taking longer than four days will lose you the battle without even spitting a verse (thank Drake for that). The four months allowed him to craft something that covered all four areas of what should be included in a diss track. The thing is, with Ether however, Nas added a fifth. Through his words, he held up the mirror to Jay-Z and they resonated on another level than just a few mean clap backs. Ether stripped away the machismo Hov was known for. Effectively making the God MC vulnerable, and essentially mortal. Just like the rest of us.
Recently I’ve noticed many people attempt to downplay the impact Ether has in the world of Hip-Hop when top tier diss tracks are discussed. People like Charlemagne Tha God, to DJ Vlad, have tried to dismiss Ether as nothing more than a diss track that only contained jokes, while Takeover was all “facts.” I have always believed all comedy is rooted in some sort of factual information. Just because something is funny doesn’t make it any less true, but we’ll get to that later. It seems now people are always eager to give Jay-Z the win but to simply think of this battle as just these two songs may be short sighted. Notice I said battle and not the war. I can even agree to the fact that Jay won the war, BUT I don’t think it had anything to do with the songs that were traded. No. Jay-Z positioned himself within Def Jam so he would sign Nas to his label years later, thus neutralizing the threat that is Nas. But this narrative that states all Ether has was jokes has begun to pick up steam as I’ve now heard the same arguments in debates with my friends and I thought it was time to address it.
Now let's get to it.
In the first verse of Ether, Nas laid the foundation of what was to become his onslaught. He didn’t mention Jay-Z at all at first, but he did address the naysayers that counted him out before he was able to respond. Basically letting everyone know they woke a sleeping giant, and that he was back to reclaim the throne. It was a cool set-up for the following verses and he even added a subtle shot to Jay at the end of his verse when he called Jay-Z “Hawaiian Sophie,” one of the earliest tracks Hov was ever featured on as the protégé of Jaz-O.
Next, Nas began to dig in. While referring to Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella Records, as “Gay-Z and Cock-a-fella Records” respectively, he addressed the fact that Jay was 12 years too late with the title of his album, “the Blueprint,” because KRS-One came out with the Blueprint of Hip-Hop album in 1989 with Boogie Down Productions. Nas also mentioned the audacity of a line Jay-Z spit in one of his tracks where he flat out stated if he wasn’t better than Biggie at the moment he was very close to being. I’m not saying whether I agree or disagree, but maybe the line was a bit tasteless as we know the Notorious B.I.G. isn’t here to defend himself. This debate still goes on today.
Nas then began to rap directly at Jay-Z as if he was looking him in the eyes. Sharing his disappointment and disgust rather than anger that they even had to come to this point:
Nas pulled no punches and began to strip Jay-Z of his armor. He talks about Jay getting chased to his building and calling Nas’ home in 1988, a year Jay-Z always references when describing his past criminal life, thus questioning the street credibility that Jay built his career off of. Nas then addressed the elephant in the room, which was the organizational structure of Roc-a-fella in comparison to Bad Boy Records. A star MC with an overly active manager/producer by his side, kind of looked as if Jay-Z was trying to mirror the blueprint (pun definitely intended) that was successful in the past:
Truth and opinions can be seen as different sides of the same coin. Yes, as had a few witty punches that are seen as comedic, but I believe they are only funny because somewhere in people’s minds they know its true. Aside from this point I firmly believe Ether has the ingredients to be considered one of, if not the greatest diss tracks of all time. Jay got hit with facts about who he was before he took on the moniker of Jay-Z or Hov. Nas made it clear that Jay-Z wasn’t lyrically invincible as he he brought up Eminem’s strong performance on Jay’s own track “Renegade,” and how Beanie Segal (an R.O.C. underling at the time) could be considered the better rapper. He also pointed the fact Jay recycles lines from the late great B.I.G. (he still does this, seriously). He addressed the street credibility Jay-Z holds so dear. And finally, he made jokes that made everyone give Jay the side-eye. I mean was he really 36 in a Karate class? Really son? True or not the mental picture of that was funny enough for me.
With all four points hit, the only element to add was an aspect that will burn Jay’s soul. Throughout Ether, Nas painted a vivid and vulnerable picture of Sean Carter, not Jay-Z. By addressing the man and not the image we as a public have created of him, in that moment in time, we were able to see him for who he was; a man. As proof I will point out Jay-Z’s response to the Ether which was a freestyle called “Supa Ugly,” where he rapped over an old Nas beat and made an un-Jay-Z like mistake. If you listen to the track Jay had some cool lines but he went too far and mentioned him sleeping with Nas’ baby mother again, but this time he added a line that turned most listeners off:
Needless to say that line didn’t sit well with his fans, or with Jay’s own mother as she forced him to issue an apology. This was a clear sign that Ether did indeed get under Jay’s skin and forced him to panic. So much so, that even Dame Dash in a Breakfast Club interview said he didn’t like the track. Dame felt Takeover was enough, but Jay obviously didn’t. The legendary battle was ended with an apology as a result of an un-calculated move, just as Nas predicted in the final line of Ether: