We all know what Jay Z has gone on to become: A mogul. He affects the world around him with a signature cool; a sort of protean nonchalance that often reveals a coldly calculating, terrifically ambitious mind. His music was like that, too. Always yearning into the move three, four, no five steps down the line. But for a moment there, after he came for Nas’ and a few others at the behest of his consigliore Memph’ Bleek with the classic diss record “Takeover,” he looked vulnerable when Nas’ clubbed him over the head with the completely unexpected “Ether.” There were more than a few of us there, clutching our copies of Illmatic and It Was Written and wondering where that Nasty Nas had gone. So to see him come roaring back, completely lucid, hungry and alive was a revelation. It was like going back in time.
“Ether” restarted things again for Nasir, though, which got us wondering: Who’s had the better discography since “Ether,” Jay or Nas? Here, we give you an-apples-to-apples comparison of albums in the post-“Ether” era. That means we unfortunately had to kill all those crossover collaboration albums Jay was doing in the mid aughts (Best Of Both Worlds, Unfinished Business, and Collision Course anyone?) along with his remix album Blueprint 2.1. For his conceptual, and arguably classic album American Gangster, we placed it as an outlier since it’s a relative anomaly in his career and it doesn’t match up as Nas’ made nothing in 2007 and his 2006 album is taken. No worries, we also placed Nas’ compilation and arguable classic The Lost Tapes there as well. Let the games begin.
*Ties count as votes for both parties
The Blueprint vs. Stillmatic
Release Date: 9/11/2001 vs. 12/18/2001
Metacritic Scores: The Blueprint (88%) vs. Stillmatic”(69%)
DX Scores: The Blueprint – 5 Out Of 5 vs. Stillmatic – 5 Out Of 5
Andre: We’re not sure what the reviewers were thinking when they panned Stillmatic as a sloppy, jumbled mess of ideas, but they were pretty much wrong. Any album that features “Ether,” “Got Urself A Gun,” “One Mic,” “Rewind,” and “You’re da Man” is damn near a classic and DX’s reviewer agreed, as we were one of the publications to give that album a perfect rating. Of course, we gave The Blueprint a perfect score, as well. Which just underlines how great both of these albums were. They were so different from each other, and earmarked a steep divide on what kind of music each would put out for the rest of their careers. Jay would continue to go the glossy, boss route as he separated himself from his previous Mafioso persona. Nas would double down on music and issues close to his heart, no matter what the results were.
Winner: Jay Z
Ural: Stillmatic broke Nas’ line of unsatisfactory work after Illmatic (or It Was Written for some) and part of that reason could be due to Jay Z lighting a fire under him through The Blueprint. More specifically, the ultra combo of “Takeover” had to have put Nassir in a particular mindset. The result was the comeback of a millennium in Stillmatic. Yes, “Either” was one helluva response to Hov but tracks like “Got Urself A Gun” and “One Mic” made the album more than simply just retaliation.
The Blueprint 2 vs. God’s Son
Release Dates: 11/12/2002 vs. 12/17/2002
Metacritic Scores: The Blueprint 2 (64%) – God’s Son (81%)
DX Scores: The Blueprint 2 – 4 Out Of 5 & God’s Son – 4 Out Of 5
Andre: God’s Son was Nas’ second amazing post-”Ether” record in a row, and featured tracks like “Made You Look” and “Book Of Rhymes.” While overall the critical reviews were highly favorable (New York Magazine gave it a perfect score), there was one critic who yawned and then got angry at the half-man-half-amazing emcee: future luminary Ta-nehisi Coates. He called it one large cliche´, claiming Nas had given up his role as humble watcher for being a kind of “Tupac clone.” Yikes. Still, song for song, God’s Son bodied Jay’s follow-up to his classic LP. Not only was it bloated, with a litany of throwaway efforts, but it also lacked Jay’s imagination and introspective pearls of wisdom and traded them for guest features and pop records.
Ural: Funny how Ta-nehisi Coates called Nas a “Tupac clone” in his God’s Son review when Jay’s single for The Blueprint 2 was “03 Bonnie & Clyde.” Doesn’t matter much as Hov really started to look like he was losing steam on his seventh studio album. Thankfully he made that up with The Black Album. Meanwhile Nas seemed to be on a roll with God’s Son thanks to some of Nas’ best introspection to date. Hell, “I Can” became the new hood national inspirational anthem and every rapper alive has tried their hand at the “Made You Look” beat at least once.
The Black Album vs. Street’s Disciple
Release Dates: 11/14/2003 vs. 11/29/2004
Metacritic Scores: The Black Album (84%) – Street’s Disciple (80%)
DX Scores: The Black Album – 4.5 Out Of 5 & Street’s Disciple – 4 Out Of 5
Andre: The Black Album was one of the best albums of Jay’s career, and a much-needed “comeback” from his kind of debacle The Blueprint 2. There were too many moments on that album to really call it anything less than a classic for Jigga, and it was also rumored to be his swan song. Of course, it wasn’t, since the Brooklyn emcee was ending his relationship with Dame Dash and needed a cultural moment to symbolically represent his taking over the organization he built with his partners. On the other hand Street’s Disciple saw Nas go super-big the way he wanted I Am to be originally but Columbia hated. Too bad it was a bloated, spread out, bleeding canvas of an album.
Winner: Jay Z
Ural: Jay Z ended his “once a year” album string with The Black Album and it was a helluva then perceived swan song. More so than any other album in his career, Hov damn near managed to make every track a hit song. Those who thought the Brooklyn native couldn’t even remotely come close to the greatness of The Blueprint were in for quite a shock. In terms of Streets Disciple, it felt like a middle of the road project for Nas. Then again, “Bridging The Gap” featuring his father Olu Dara was almost a full circle moment for the Queens emcee.
Winner: Jay Z
Kingdom Come vs. Hip Hop Is Dead
Release Dates: 11/21/2006 vs. 12/15/2006
Metacritic Scores: Kingdom Come (67%) – Hip Hop Is Dead (79%)
DX Scores: Kingdom Come – 3.5 Out Of 5 & Hip Hop Is Dead – 4.5 Out Of 5
Andre: Yeah, I heard Kingdom Come was rushed through because of L.A. Reid, but there was really no excuse for an album that Pop from Hov. He’d been experimenting for years now, and this was his comeback and he squandered it like a virgin all over the sheets of his would-be-lovers-bed. Then there was Hip Hop Is Dead, and God it felt like Hip Hop’s essence was being sucked out of it during a wafish 2006. Nasir came out of nowhere with “Black Republicans,” which low-key saved Mr. Carter that year (that and “Beach Chair”), “Carry On Tradition” (which is a terrible beat despite Nas’ superior penmanship) and the crown-jewel and Kanye assisted “Still Dreaming” that featured a heavenly sounding Chrisette Michelle. Why Kanye and Nas don’t realize they’re just perfect for each other is truly beyond my understanding but whatever, Nas wins this one hands down.
Ural: Kingdom Come and Hip Hop Is Dead were black eyes in both careers. In terms of Jigga, his comeback album following his short-lived hiatus was severely disappointing. Then again, Kingdom Come served as the first time many got a look at mogul Hov thanks to the dreaded “30 Something,” “Hollywood” featuring Beyonce and “Beach Chair” collaboration with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Hip Hop Is Dead wasn’t any better as Nas didn’t make anything as entertaining as the new crop of artists he proclaimed killed the culture. Both albums were “mid-life crises” albums for Hip Hop’s greatest emcees.
The Blueprint 3 vs. Untitled
Release Dates: 9/8/2009 vs. 7/8/2008
Metacritic Scores: The Blueprint 3 (65%) – Untitled (71%)
DX Scores: The Blueprint 3 – 4 Out Of 5 vs. Untitled – 4.5 Out Of 5
Andre: The Blueprint 3 was an interesting mess, yeah? Jay was bombastic as ever with illuminati styled videos and the like, but the thing lacked any real cohesion and raison d’etre. It was a star-studded cliche´, though, and it felt like it. Like a club you hung out in front of hoping you’d get in but the bouncer was a dick and no one knew your name. But, he did try to restore a semblance of sanity to the game with “Death Of Autotune,” which was admirable. It also had four bonafide hot-as-fuck singles in the above mentioned, “Run This Town,” “On To The Next One” and the now annoying-as-hell “Empire State Of Mind.” Untitled was equally ridiculous with “Queens Get The Money” as the opening deadeye bullet on a preachy album with almost no mainstream connects. A quiet listen, each song was a lot of what Nas had been talking about from the beginning. But, God, it had so much soul.
Ural: Both emcees were past that “mid-life crisis” point, and both Jay and Nas went two totally different directions. Corporate Hov literally started forming his Roc Nation roster while Nasty Nas transitioned into the most political he’d been to that point. The Blueprint 3 ended up breaking Elvis’ record for most number one albums as “On To The Next” one was Jay flexing to the max thanks to the last great Swizz Beatz production. Considering the controversy around Untitled and its original title Nigger, it made total sense for Nas to attack Fox News through “Sly Fox” or Jay Electronica’s amazingly produced opener. Even though Nas failed a few times throughout its dark 54 minute runtime, it felt a lot more vibrant than The Blueprint 3.
Watch The Throne vs. Distant Relatives
Release Dates: 8/8/2011 vs. 5/14/2010
Metacritic Scores: Watch The Throne (78%) & Distant Relatives (73%)
DX Scores: Watch The Throne – 4 Out Of 5 & Distant Relatives – 4.5 Out Of 5
Andre: If Watch The Throne was 1% rap featuring the best production money could by, Distant Relatives was made to feel like the exact opposite. For every Kanye or Swizz Beatz beat on WTT, Distant Relatives featured jungle production from Damian and Stephen Marley themselves. Looking back, it was remarkable the album sounded that good despite not having any major producers or collaborators but it soldiered on and became more of a reggae/rap marriage than the conscious rap masterpiece people hoped for. Meanwhile, WTT was a seesaw of obsessively magnificent moments buttressed by down in the gutter ones. “Welcome To The Jungle” is arguably Swizz’s worst produced record, and no matter how hot it would go on to be, “Illest Motherfucker Alive” almost two minutes of silence is unconscionable. Overall, though, it’s high points were higher than Distant Relatives, but its low points were too egregious for the hall-of-fame duo.
Ural: Having Kanye West and Jay Z create a body of work together felt like the super collaborative album everyone wanted. As both would say, Watch The Throne presented black economic excellence. There wasn’t anything more controversial and aspirational as “Niggas In Paris” or “Made It In America” featuring Frank Ocean. A year earlier and hype more concentrated within core Hip Hop was Nas and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives, which at times flew the flag of black intellectualism. It was about the glory of the entire African diaspora. Though Distant Relatives lacked the sonic flair of Watch The Throne, it doubled down on something a little more soulful.
Winner: Jay Z
Magna Carta… Holy Grail vs. Life Is Good
Release Dates: 7/4/2013 vs. 7/13/2012
Metacritic Scores: Magna Carta… Holy Grail (60%) vs. Life Is Good (81%)
DX Scores: Magna Carta… Holy Grail – 4 Out Of 5 vs. Life Is Good – 4 Out Of 5
Ural: Despite Jay’s adaptation of the #newrules mantra, Magna Carta…Holy Grail was a commercial product disguised as high concept art. Honestly, let’s not pretend going platinum before getting a physical release via Samsung deal was as impressive as being a good album. The album was a powermove for Hip Hop’s legendary mega mogul. In contrast, Life Is Good was Nas’ most complete and honest album since Stillmatic. Mr. Jones equally pulled every emotional and lyrical muscle to deliver something that was strictly for Hip Hop connoisseur.
Andre: Magna Carta… Holy Grail sold a- milli before it ever hit a shelf, and Jay’s a diabolical genius because he got Samsung to pay for it all. And then there was the debacle with the app thing, but nevertheless MCHG had its moments, though they were mostly overblown. The single, “Tom Ford” sounded weathered and soulless, as though Jigga-man could barely find the energy to keep going and then there were the songs that got less great with each listen like “Picasso Baby,” “Oceans” and “F.U.T.W.” Of course, “Holy Grail” will live forever. Still, Life Is Good saw Nas at a biographical high he hadn’t shown in sometime with all the conceptual work he’d been doing. From there, and because of its cohesiveness and energy it’s an easy win for the Queens emcee.
The Outlier Section:
Release Dates: 9/23/2002 vs. 11/6/2007
The Lost Tapes vs. American Gangster
Metacritic Scores: The Lost Tapes (81%) vs. American Gangster (83%)
DX Scores: The Lost Tapes – 4.5 Out Of 5 vs. American Gangster – 4.5 Out Of 5
Andre: Talk about a christmas full of presents under the tree and you’d be talking about both The Lost Tapes and American Gangster. Lost Tapes was Nas no filter, just pure unadulterated bars and rhymes. American Gangster was the most pure Jay-mafioso since Reasonable Doubt and with the Brooklyn legend as Frank Lucas he gave us an extremely well-produced story driven album of epic proportions. Both are beautiful examples at Hip Hop at its finest, but only one was a complete project and so Jay gets the win.
Winner: Jay Z
Ural: One was inspired by the cinematic adaptation of Frank Lucas’ days as one of America’s biggest drug dealers. The other was a collection of tracks that Columbia were initially going to shelve. Lost Tapes featured Nas spitting some of his best bars to date while American Gangster is essentially Hov’s first fully realized concept album. Both had their faults. Despite being Nas’ best display of lyricism, Lost Tapes felt like a glorified mixtape. Then again, American Gangster had a few disappointments, including the Lil Wayne catastrophe “Hello Brooklyn 2.0.”
Overall Winner: Nasir Jones ( 10 votes to 8)
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.
Ural Garrett is an Los Angeles-based journalist and HipHopDX’s Senior Features Writer. When not covering music, video games, films and the community at large, he’s in the kitchen baking like Anita. Follow him on Twitter @Uralg.