Rap's latest feud exposes the genre's downfall. Nas' attack on Jay-Z is more than a personal slam, says Evan Serpick -- it's an indictment of the current rap scene
Nas, Jay-Z
Credit: Jay-Z: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage.com; Nas: Lester Cohen/Wireimage.com

Rap’s latest feud exposes the genre’s downfall

Feuds are as much a part of hip-hop history as two turntables and a microphone, so it’s easy to gloss over the Nas-Jay-Z flap as another in a long line of MC battles. In a lot of ways, it’s exactly like past clashes involving LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee, and Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. But in the most recent round of barbs, the hip-hop heavyweights moved into a realm of realism that just might change the industry forever.

At first, it didn’t seem to be about anything, with the combatants trading more-bark-than-bite battle raps: Brooklyn’s Jay dropped ”Takeover,” with blistering attacks on Queens rivals Nas and Mobb Deep, questioning their gangsta cred, among other things: ”You ain’t live it, you witnessed it from your folks’ pad/You scribbled in your notepad and created your life.”

On ”Ether,” Nas responded by questioning Jigga’s sexuality: ”When these streets keep callin’, heard it when I was sleep/That this Gay-Z and C–kafella Records wanted beef.” By the time Jay responded with ”Superugly,” attacking Nas’ dental work, the rivalry seemed to have become about as toothless as imaginable: ”Niggas will tie you up on the coliseum roof/And open beer bottles off the boy chipped tooth.”

But at last month’s Hot 97 Summer Jam in New York, things got SUPER superugly. Nas, a scheduled headliner, brought along an effigy of Jay-Z that he wanted to hang onstage as part of a skit. When concert organizers demurred, he refused to perform. Instead, he took to the airways of Hot 97’s rival, Power 105. In a tirade he repeated to MTV a few days later, Nas attacked rappers for being lazy and lacking creativity, corporate radio stations for dictating what’s popular, and record labels — particularly rap’s megalabel, Def Jam, which he called an ”evil empire” — for paying radio stations to play their artists. Here’s an excerpt:

”It’s a whole evil empire funded by a bunch of other evil empires — with Def Jam being one of them — who are giving them money to play all their artists’ records. Meanwhile, the struggling artists have to re-create records that sound like Jay-Z, and they’re destroying themselves. If you listen to 90 percent of the rappers, they’re not even creative…. Let’s get real and be creative.

”I buy all these people’s albums, and it ain’t talking about nothing. I like [Cam’ron] and everything — he’s a good lyricist — but the album is wack. Y’all brothers gotta start rapping about something that’s real. My man N.O.R.E. I love you, N.O.R.E., but step your rap game up. Nelly, if you trying to battle KRS-One, don’t follow Nas, man. You can follow Nas if you gonna be creative. I’m here letting my people know it’s time to be real. Make your own outlets. Make mixtapes. Listen to [underground DJ] Kay Slay. Go get hip-hop without dealing with that station. Or get some balls. Rappers, get some balls. Rappers are slaves.”

Okay, so the talk of ”evil empires” and labels paying stations may be exaggerated (Def Jam denies it pays radio stations), but Nas’ overall message is dead-on. Hip-hop has become a complacent — if not necessarily evil — empire. The hunger, talent, and anger that propelled the genre to the top of the music industry’s food chain has been replaced by a corporate machine that churns out cookie-cutter singles that radio stations, labels, and artists conspire (successfully) to turn into hits.

The fact that these half-assed efforts make up some of the best-selling albums around proves that the hip-hop generation dominates the marketplace. But to continue attracting new fans and to help hip-hop evolve into the thoughtful, eloquent voice it too rarely is these days, the industry better wake up and shape up. Let’s hope that, for once, something besides acrimony and homophobia will come out of a rap feud, because the real fights are yet to come.