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Kings of New York

By all rights they should not be so confident. Not now. Just one week after the tragic events of September 11, in this city where uncertainty has been the daily manna of a shaken citizenry. But in the skyscraper home of Roc-A-Fella records, cocky assuredness still holds prime position on the menu. And there's little wrong with a friendly wager on a number of import to all within the carpeted office of Roc-A-Fella honcho Damon Dash.

"So what you think, how many?" the query rings out.

Lean, steel-haired Lyor Cohen—head of Def Jam/Island, Roc's corporate parent—offers a number. So does Biggs, the low-key member of the Roc-A-Fella triumvirate. Then Dash. And finally, from a comfortably slouched position in Dash's leather swivel chair, a grinning, remarkably relaxed Jay-Z adds his two cents. Their numbers fall within a similar range, somewhere between 400 and 500 thousand. Most might label that hopelessly optimistic. Surely not this week. Not those numbers.

Jay-Z, unthugged
photo: Jonathan Mannion
Jay-Z, unthugged

But the span of 24 hours will prove this confident foursome prescient and the rest of us disgustingly faithless. After all, Jay-Z's done everything possible over six summers to certify his chokehold on hip-hop, if not pop music at large. Why shouldn't we believe he could drop an album, The Blueprint, on the very day America found itself rocked back on its heels, and then proceed to sell some 465,000 copies over the course of a week dominated by national fear, anger, and growls of war? And in the wake of such a performance, who could doubt or challenge his hold on the elusive hip-hop throne? Well, at least one person, as it turns out—Nasir Jones, formerly known as Nasty Nas, then Nas, then Escobar, and now, thankfully, Nas once again.


The roots of the tussle are murky, obscured somewhere between urban lore and rapper ego—darts thrown on record and mix tapes by surrogates, accusations of jealousy and envy, the never absent baby-mama drama, mutual perception of fake thug posturing, although who in hip-hop isn't guilty of that one, and the natural competitiveness endemic to any who would rock the mic for dolo. On paper the matchup seemed uneven. To one side rested Nas, onetime lyrical prodigy, revered for his classic 1994 debut, Illmatic, and excoriated for almost every effort since by fans waiting for a worthy follow-up. On the other stood Jay-Z, owner of the most impressive résumé in recent hip-hop history, a paragon of consistency and success since his own classic debut, 1995's Reasonable Doubt, through four subsequently sterling albums. Add to that the aforementioned Blueprint, perhaps his strongest work since Reasonable Doubt. Looked like no contest.

Jay-Z brought things roaring into the open at Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, where, after eviscerating Prodigy of Mobb Deep, he tossed off a scornful warning—"Y'all don't want it with Hov/Ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov!" Invitations to wrestle seldom come clearer. Little surprise Nas came a-knocking, tossing back a little number called "Stillmatic," one multi-bar verse over Rakim's "Paid in Full" rhythm that contained a few choice lines for Mr. Shawn Carter—"H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo?/For shizzle you phony, the rapping version of Sisqó."

In truth, most of "Stillmatic" served to herald the return of Nas the eagle-eyed street poet commenting pointedly on the everyday, only devoting a few bars at the end for Roc-A-Fella. Nevertheless, Nas's strong return of Jay-Z's Summer Jam lob left him open for the backhand down the line, which Jay-Z thumped with an eager flourish on "Takeover," one of the best battle records in recent memory. Whether by strategic design or fortuitous circumstance, "Takeover" not only skewered Nas, it emphatically slammed the door on street mutterings and the slew of impatient young rappers bucking to cart King Carter off to the Black Tower. The song's combination of a creeping, bass-heavy, teeth-clenching interpolation of the Doors' "Five to One," courtesy of producer Kanye West, with Jay-Z's battle hymns—alternately condescending and coldly menacing—provided the perfect gutter compliment to "IZZO," the more commercial initial salvo from Blueprint. In actuality, only one of the four "Takeover" verses addressed Nas, the others being directed at Prodigy. But that verse spoke a searing truth, crystallizing all the frustration and fury the fickle hip-hop faithful have felt about Nas since the glory days of Illmatic. Jay-Z lanced every boil, from Nas's unfathomable slip from hip-hop's apex—"Went from top 10 to not mentioned at all"—to the maddening inability of his subsequent records to come near Illmatic's genius: "Four albums in 10 years, nigga?/I can divide/That's one every, let's say two, two of them shits was doo/ One was, hummmnn, the other was Illmatic/ That's a one hot album every 10 year average."

Fortuitous indeed—few albums have been set up better. Regarded as one of the year's best hip-hop releases, Blueprintachieved a striking cohesion, unfolding in organic fashion, allowing each nuance its proper stage: that commanding vocal flow and delivery, matched by few in hip-hop; the narrative breadth that can bounce between the obligatory party and club anthems, street talk, and surprisingly introspective musings; and neck-snapping beats. All Jay-Z albums have had those elements. But on Blueprintthey work in better tandem, none rudely shouldering another out of the way. A focused harmony achieved by eschewing a parade of guest stars—save for Eminem's commanding if unsurprising performance on "Renegade"—and by using producers, particularly Just Blaze and the aforementioned Kanye West, to construct a warm, soulful sonic bed, replete with a host of lush background vocals and melodic progressions, that makes the album glide like a single thought.

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