Jay-Z and Nas’s rap beef from 20 years ago didn’t have anything to do with national politics—until it did—when Elizabeth Warren ethered Mike Bloomberg last Wednesday night.
During the Democratic debate before, the Notorious L.I.Z. called Bloomberg out on alleged sexist remarks and behavior, supporting racist policies like redlining, and hiding his tax returns—and now we have to explore how a decades old rivalry between two New York rap giants explains this year’s presidential race.
In chemistry, ether is a colorless volatile liquid that is highly flammable and used as an anesthetic and a solvent.
In hip-hop—and by extension, pop culture—ether means to verbally assassinate one’s character or expose someone’s weaknesses. For that, we have Nas to thank.
Ether is at the core of political elections, especially when they’re presidential. The race for the highest post in the land starts with one politician trying to convince enough people that the opposing politician is weak, and when there is one politician per party left standing, the cycle is repeated until it’s determined who’s the greatest of all time—the one who can lead the free world.
That is also the core of beef in hip-hop.
Trump is an oligarch. Bloomberg is an autocrat. The other democratic contestants are trying to position themselves as being for the people. They’re also trying to prove that they are the ones who can best Trump when it comes to his likely ad hominem attacks and verbal attempts to dismantle their character. Elizabeth Warren was slipping in the polls, but she came out swinging last Wednesday and reminded potential voters that, at minimum, she is about as good as it gets in cutting down a rich Wall Streeter. We’ll see whether Bloomberg can recover at tonight’s South Carolina debate, and how Warren delivering that moment could redefine how potential Bloomberg voters view him from now through the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3.
Like this year’s presidential election, Nas and Jay-Z’s beef was years in the making. It started in 1996 with subtle shady bars being delivered, mostly from Nas’s part (which he has admitted). Their drama peaked in 2001 when Jay-Z released “Super Ugly” and then “Takeover.” For Nas, “Ether” was a must. It was the moment that he had to show that he wouldn’t go down without a fight. This was a time when Jay-Z was in the midst of rebranding himself as a business, man (not a businessman), and Nas was still trying to be seen as for the people. However, that’s complicated because even Nas lyrics weren’t always righteous—a point Jay-Z calls out in 2002’s “Blueprint 2,” when he asks, “Is it oochie wally or one mic?”
In other words, choose the path you’re trying to be on.
Politicians are often forced to choose, as if they couldn’t be multidimensional. Bernie Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist. His recent popularity led to a best-selling book, which then made him a millionaire who has several homes. It’s possible to be both because the gist of Bernie’s ethos is that no one should be struggling. You can be rich and have houses, but everyone should have a house. However, it doesn’t stop Bernie’s political foes from using his money and status as a way to state that he’s a hypocrite.
In Jay and Nas’s case, it was determined that they had gone too far when their mothers got involved, after Jay-Z referenced Nas’s ex, Carmen Bryant, and his daughter, Destiny, in a way to hurt Nas. Both men’s mothers stepped in to tell them they needed to stop. Jay ended up offering an apology on The Angie Martinez Show, and eventually fans were allowed to vote for the winner. Nas won with 58% of the vote, while Jay-Z picked up 42%. Even though Nas was the clear winner, nearly two decades later people still debate who’s the best and have theories about who had the most impact.
In the aftermath of their beef, Nas signed to Def Jam Records when Jay-Z was its president, and they even recorded music together including “Black Republican.” They haven’t worked together recently, but both men are considered icons and are co-existing peacefully, doing what they feel is necessary for the greater good of themselves and/or the people through their various respective business ventures. These moves can reignite the feud between the two among fans, as Nas is a venture capitalist and Jay has a partnership with the NFL, but they can’t please everyone, much like politicians.
When it comes to politics, there are no mothers to keep candidates in check when they exhibit petty behavior, which at this point is often. It’s also not always clear—and sometimes surprising—what people want, as polling fluctuates. It’s unlikely that Sanders, Warren, or any of the remaining democratic presidential contenders will work together right now, unless it’s to gang up on Bloomberg again—and as the undercards, we can certainly expect Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar (rap names: Mayo P and MC Klobuchamos) to trade more barbs back and forth.
But what politicians might learn from Jay and Nas is how they want to be mentioned when this period of time is studied in history books, as the battle for America’s soul rages on.