Happy 15th Anniversary to Nas’ Stillmatic, originally released December 18, 2001.
What's rap beef in 2016? Usually, it's nothing but memes, social media insults and maybe a diss track—if we're lucky. In modern times, hip-hop feuds are here today and gone tomorrow, much like everything else in this disposable world that we live in. But before the social media era, emcees had to pull out all the stops while engaged in battle, as their careers were often on the line.
In December 2001, America was at war with Afghanistan following the September 11th Terrorist attacks. At this very same time, a brewing battle in the hip-hop world exploded after Queensbridge rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones released the scathing diss "Ether," aimed at Brooklyn's own Jay Z. The latter emcee was fresh off the release of his critically-acclaimed The Blueprint album, which was released on the very same date as the aforementioned attacks on the U.S. The album put up great numbers, selling 420,000 copies in its first week. It also became Hov's fourth consecutive album to reach number one on the Billboard 200 chart and its soulful production launched the careers of then-budding producers Just Blaze and Kanye West.
But perhaps the gusto of the album was the Yeezy-produced "Takeover," which took direct aim at Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Nas Escobar. The origin of the Jay Z-Nas feud is cloudy, but after years of tension, and possible jabs at each other on wax, the story took an interesting turn when rumors circulated that Jay Z had slept with Nas' girlfriend, Carmen Bryan.
Shortly thereafter, Jay Z launched a direct diss during Hot 97's 2001 Summer Jam Concert. After displaying embarrassing photos of Prodigy on the now notorious Summer Jam big screen, Hov debuted "Takeover" and ended it with the line, "Ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov. NO!"
Nas responded with a freestyle entitled "Stillmatic," which had quite a few heavy jabs at Jay, but didn't pick up much traction in the streets. The album version of "Takeover" that Jay Z recorded for The Blueprint would later have a full verse complete with scathing insults and criticisms directed at Escobar.
Thus, when it was time to release his album, Nas had a laundry list of things that needed to be addressed. Stillmatic the album was released on December 18, 2001. It was Nas' fifth studio album and a nod to his classic 1994 debut Illmatic. Aside from the beef, Nas was also being heavily criticized for his work following his debut. While his 1996 sophomore effort It Was Written was well-received by critics, many considered his follow up releases I Am and Nastradamus—both released in 1999—to be ultimately lackluster relative to their precursors.
Nas opens the album with "Stillmatic (The Intro)," produced by The Hangmen 3, a production team consisting of Johnny Bananas, Jeff Two Times and Benzino. Over an exquisite sample of Stacy Lattisaw's classic 1980 single "Let Me Be Your Angel," Nas silences his critics and addresses those who had written him off. He raps: "I crawled up out of that grave / wipin’ the dirt, cleanin’ my shirt / They thought I'd make another 'Illmatic,' / But it's always forward I'm movin' / never backwards.”
With impeccable imagery, he also describes his humble beginnings and the rebirth of his career: "Walking very thin lines, ages seven and nine / That's the age I was on my album cover this is the rebirth / I know the streets thirst water like Moses / Walking through the hot desert searching to be free / This is my ending and my new beginning – nostalgia / Alpha and Omega places, it's like a glitch in 'The Matrix.'"
“Ether” comes in at track two on the album—curiously the same spot as “Takeover’s” placement on The Blueprint. Opening with a “Fuck Jay Z” sample lifted from 2pac’s “Fuck Friendz,” Nas rips Jay Z with ferocious attacks. “What you think you getting girls now ‘cause of your looks? / Ne-gro please! You no mustache having with whiskers like a rat / compared to Beans you whack / and your man stabbed Un and made you take the blame / your ass went for Jaz to hangin’ with Kane / to Irv, to B.I.G / and Eminem murdered you on your on shit.”
Nas, often considered the underdog of the battle, raised the stakes upon the track’s release. While Hov released “Super Ugly” shortly thereafter, his response didn’t seem to garner as much hype as “Ether.” As a result, some still consider Nas the victor in the battle and the topic is still heavily debated upon a decade and a half later. After a few other minor shots at each other, the feud ended when the pair came together and performed at Power 105.1’s Power House concert in 2005.
Nas ditched the catchy hooks and glitzy production when choosing the singles for Stillmatic. “Got Ur Self A…” retools a sample from Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” which was also used prominently in the HBO series The Sopranos. Over hard-hitting drums and twirling keys, Nas glides over the track with boasts of his lyrical panache and reasons why he’s rap royalty.
He gets deeper on “One Mic” and delves into the ills of the hood, while calling for simplicity. Chucky Thompson crafted the beat for the mellow/volatile anthem and it features a sample from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” With its initial smooth groove sound that gradually morphs into a boisterous thunder, Nas sought to capture the essence of Collins’ 1981 hit. He told Rolling Stone in 2007 that he wanted to create a song that had a similar vibe.
Unbeknownst to many, the Amerie-assisted “Rule” was also a single from Stillmatic, though it was not heavily promoted. Produced by the Trackmasters and built on an interpolation of Tears for Fears’ 1985 single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Rule” addresses the social and political climate of America following 9/11. While the production sounds pretty dated, it still remains a solid effort and notable track for the era.
Cuts like “Smokin,’” “What Goes Around,” “You’re da Man,“ “Rewind,” and “2nd Childhood” are reminiscent of classic Nas. On the latter, the emcee depicts a tale of his past and references others who never grew up over a DJ Premier beat that’s chopped to perfection. On “The Flyest,” Nas links back up with his longtime partner AZ for a flashy anthem replete with braggadocio rhymes about being the flyest gangsters in the game.
Nas wasn’t finished addressing his opponents after “Ether.” On “Destroy and Rebuild,” he uses a Slick Rick styled narrative to diss friend-turned-foe, Cormega. Nas had previously worked with the fellow Queensbridge rapper, as he was one of the members of the rap supergroup The Firm that also included Foxy Brown and AZ. However, their relationship grew strained over the years after he was ousted from the group and replaced with Nature. Nas reflects, “Back to Cor, got him a deal but his rhymes were wack / Def Jam mad that he signed the contract / now he got jealous and mad at my shine / making silly tapes, I’m always on his mind.” He also throws shots at Prodigy for falsely repping Queensbridge and getting robbed.
Though Stillmatic is widely considered Nas’ comeback album, it’s not devoid of missteps. “Braveheart Party” featuring Mary J. Blige seems quite forced and stale when pitted against many of the other standout tracks on the album. Also, “My Country” speaks poignantly on America’s ills, but its dated production wears thin.
Stillmatic peaked at number 5 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and went platinum, selling over 2,026,000 copies. Commercial success aside, the album also placed Nas back in the conversation about hip-hop’s kings. All in all, the album was a chess move that worked in Escobar’s favor and a decade and a half later, it still remains a vital piece within Nas’ vast catalogue.