Reviews: Takeover vs. Ether

Takeover and Ether are two rap songs about destroying the other person by discrediting the other person. Because the two together represent the Homeric intersection of real-life and art and are one of the greatest-ever testaments to the role that ego plays in rap music.

Today, Jay Z is very famous. He’s very famous inside of rap and he’s also very famous outside of rap.1 Nas is considerably less famous outside of rap but equally famous within it. This, it would appear, is a reflection of what was at the very center of their very famous feud, which culminated in “Takeover” vs. “Ether,” the most electrifying rap battle that’s ever occurred and that will ever occur.

In the interest of space, I’m going to move forward under the assumption you understand three things:

#1. Jay Z and Nas are two of the very most influential rappers of all time. It’s as true now as it was in 2001 and as it will be in 2101.

#2. Jay Z and Nas were equally at risk during their war. That’s a large part of the reason the feud ended up being so important. This wasn’t LL Cool J vs. Canibus, where one guy is a star and nobody really knows who the other one is. This was two boss-level bosses. And that meant that the loser was going to be unfavorably remembered forever. That is a terrifying thought, for sure. It’s why these sorts of things happen so rarely, really. It’s just, like, why risk it? Think on it like this: Ja Rule and 50 Cent were equal stars relative to one another when they started going at each other (2002–2003). Ja could’ve avoided it. He didn’t. So 50 Cent crushed him. Now 50 Cent is worth about half a billion dollars and Ja Rule works at Arby’s.

#3. Jay Z and Nas both wanted the same thing (to be the best rapper) but were trying to get there in different ways; Jay thought stacking up credits could get him there;

Nas thought layering art on top of art was the way there.

Here is a timeline of the six years it took for Jay Z and Nas to go from spark to nuclear war:

Jay Z vs. Nas

1995: Nas is a no-show for a recording session with Jay Z. Producer Ski Beatz, still wanting Nas’s voice on the track, lifts the line “I’m out for presidents to represent me” from Nas’s “The World Is Yours,” then uses it as the spine for Jay Z’s “Dead Presidents.” Despite “Dead Presidents” being an amazing song—tempered, insightful, perfectly pitched—Nas isn’t that happy about being included without actually being included.

1996: Nas says the line “Lex with TV sets [are] the minimum” in his song “The Message.” It lives in disguise at first, but is eventually revealed as a masked swipe at Jay Z, who Nas says he’d seen riding around in a Lexus with TVs in it. 

1997: Following the death of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z attempts to anoint himself replacement royalty on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. On “The City Is Mine,” Jay raps, “Don’t worry about Brooklyn, I continue to flame / Therefore a world with amnesia won’t forget your name / You held it down long enough, let me take those reins.”

1998: Jay releases Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life. It debuts at number one on Billboard’s Top 200, and eventually sells more than five million copies and earns him a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Some people are upset because it seems pretty clear that the album’s main goal is success instead of art. Jay Z is not upset because he is only a handful of smart business moves4 and ten years away from marrying Beyoncé.

1999: Nas releases “We Will Survive,” a song that is, in part, an ode to the Notorious B.I.G. It includes this: “It used to be fun makin’ records to see your response / But now competition is none now that you’re gone / And these niggas is wrong, using your name in vain / And they claim to be New York’s king? It ain’t about that.” Nas has always appeared more interested in artistry, which is a trait that nearly everybody who is familiar with rap attributes to him, even if he did go on to record “Braveheart Party.” That discrepancy in purpose was the point of his barb here, and really the whole philosophical reason for their fighting. After he rapped it, everyone looked at Jay Z to see what he was going to do. Jay Z responded by looking at his very expensive watch to see if he was late for a meeting.

1999: Nas pokes Memphis Bleek in the eye. Bleek, who is closely associated with Jay Z, responds in 2000 on “My Mind Right,” saying, “Your lifestyle’s written / So who you supposed to be? Play your position.” It’s a tame assault (it references Nas’s album It Was Written), but it was at least proof that Nas had Jay’s ear. (The most important thing Memphis Bleek did in his career was exist so Nas could pick on him, which eventually led to Jay Z responding to Nas. Bless you, Bleek.) [Note: Mobb Deep, Nas allies, also began inserting themselves into all of this around this point, though never to any real effect beyond being close enough to Nas to encourage him.]

2000: Nas, (probably by this point) frustrated he’s not goaded Jay into a direct response yet, gets louder, more confrontational, more unavoidable: “Y’all niggas all hail, the King is dead / He running like a bitch with his tail between his legs / ‘Stillmatic,’ still eye for an eye, wanna be God / You’re just the next rapper to die, fucking with Nas.” He makes it impossible for Jay Z to ignore him. So Jay Z stops ignoring him.

2001: FINALLY, Jay Z responds. While performing at Hot 97’s Summer Jam concert, Jay performs a previously unheard song called “Takeover.” The first verse is aggressive, though it doesn’t specifically name names. The second verse calls out Mobb Deep, doing so while showing adorable pictures of Mobb Deep member Prodigy as a child on the stage’s big screen. Everyone laughs. Jay ends the song with the line “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov, no!” Everyone goes, “Whhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!” It’s all the provocation Nas needed.

2001: Nas releases “Stillmatic (Freestyle),” which is just full-on war mode. He attacks several of Jay Z’s label mates, then Jay himself, calling him, among other things, a liar and a homosexual and a copycat. All of a sudden, two of the most terrifying rappers on the planet are missiling toward each other at a trillion miles per hour. “Exciting” isn’t the word. Nothing else matters.

2001: Jay releases the full version of “Takeover,” which includes a whole section dedicated to the mathematical annihilation of Nas.

2001: Nas releases “Ether” and all of the birds in the sky die and all of the fish in the ocean die, too. It’s full of salt, but the worst is when Nas strips away the bluster.

Takeover vs. Ether

What’s the best “Takeover” vs. “Ether” piece of trivia?

Here it is: There was a third part to all of this: “Ether” was so damning when it hit that Jay Z, nearly impossible to rattle, offered an impromptu response on Hot 97 called “Super Ugly.” In it, he said that he and Allen Iverson slept with Nas’s then-girlfriend, an allegation he alluded to on “Takeover” (“You- know-who did you-know-what with you-know-who”). He also said he left a used condom on Nas’s baby’s car seat. Jay Z’s mother was so offended, she made Jay Z apologize to Nas and his girlfriend and all other women.

Which song is sonically better?

“Takeover” sampled the very rugged “Five to One” by the Doors, and it sure was fun and surprising, and I definitely do enjoy Jay Z’s ability to bend sentences around corners to fit into whatever cadence it is he’s trying to make. But “Ether,” a testament to Nas’s superheroic skill, was as rotund as it was slicing, and that’s a pair of traits nobody else on earth has figured out how to match up yet. “Ether” got it.

Which song has the better disses?

“Ether” was very, very ruthless. It covered all the bases.

Destructive: “Blowed up, no guts left; chest/face gone” Self-congratulatory: “Name a rapper that I ain’t influenced” Directly hurtful: He called Jay a camel, and that’s so sad. Indirectly dismissive: “What’s sad is I love you ’cuz you’re my brother / You traded your soul for riches”

But Jay Z’s above-referenced math class was too real to overcome. “Takeover” got it.

Wait, so who won, then?

Everyone did, actually.

Jay Z won because he thrust himself further into the true rap canon than he could have had he avoided confrontation. No matter how famous he gets, how many endorsement deals he does, or how many times he hangs out with the president, he will always be one-half of the most exciting, realest rap battle in history. His name couldn’t carry as much weight in rap without it.

Nas won because it reinvigorated him and revitalized his career.

And humans with functioning ears won because we got “Takeover” and “Ether” and all of the excitement that surrounded the battle while it was happening. Also, nobody died, which is always preferable.

Yeah, but who really won?

Well, “Ether” was technically better than “Takeover.”

Got it. So Nas won?

Kind of, but really no. It’s hard to say Nas won because we know how each of their lives turned out. I mean, Nas literally worked for Jay Z when he signed to Def Jam Records in 2006.9 At the end of everything, we’re back at their core dispute: art vs. success.

In 2001, Nas won. But for the rest of time, Jay will win. I suspect that’s how they prefer it, too.

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