Shortly after the death of the Notorious B.I.G., the crown for King of New York was up for grabs. Both Nas and Jay-Z felt it was rightfully theirs, which led to one of the most respected and infamous beefs in rap history. Consisting of several diss tracks back and forthâ€”most notably, â€œEither,â€ â€œSupa Ugly,â€ â€œTakeover,â€ and â€œGot Yourself a Gunâ€â€” the beef forced many fans to take sides.
Both Nas and Jay-Z have dropped over ten official releases and since their introduction into the game and their cover art has been an important reflection of their overall image. Paralleling their overall image, we consistently see Nas represented as he street poet, and Jay as the baller.
Nas – Illmatic | Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt
The cover art of a debut album often can make or break an LP. It is what distinguishes a new artist, giving them a chance to push their originality, and represent what theyâ€™ve been about up until this point in their life.
Both Jay-Z and Nas chose to represent themselves on their covers. Reasonable Doubt depicts Jay-Z draped in a fedora as the classic sophisticated king pin. The grayscale of the image gives it an air of mystery and power, two themes prevalent on Hovaâ€™s debut. Simple and sleek, yet capitalized text pushes the power theme further, and a tilted brim on Jayâ€™s hat, covering his eyes, adds to the mysticism of the God MC.
Nas, on the other hand, is looking straight at the camera. A transparency effect combining his head and the Queensbridge projects in the background contrasts Nas to Jay-Z in that he is connected to himself, the streets, and in effect the listener. Illmatic is an album of reflection, both of Nas on himself, as is illustrated by the picture of him as a child, and of Queensbridge, as his head blends into the background. While Jay is mysterious and powerful, Nas seems to be saying â€œthis is who I am.â€ A somewhat blurred image, and cryptic style text, however, highlights that fact that the story of Nas is complicated.
Already, on their debutâ€™s, the seeds have been planted, distinguishing Nas as the lyrical MC, and Jay as the corporation.
Nas Streetâ€™s Disciple | Jay-Z The Black Album
The Black Album marked Jay-Zâ€™s retirement from rapping, and his shift towards his position as a music industry executive. Both the case and the cover art of The Black Album are almost entirely black, symbolizing Jayâ€™s disappearance from the rap game, and the end of his music career. In a pose reminiscent of Reasonable Doubt, Jay covers his eyes with a hat. However Jay is no longer a mystery to the public, having been in the game for ten years. This shot thenâ€”featuring the first appearance of a hat on one of his album covers since his debutâ€”acts as the end of a chain of albums, and symbolizes the death of Jay-Z the rapper.
Nas, having already proclaimed himself as Godâ€™s Son, continues with his religious ties on Streetâ€™s Disciple, in a shot inspired by the Last Supper. Here we see the many incarnations of Nas over the yearsâ€”including him as the Black Jesus, and as the street poetâ€”highlighting the complexities that surround him as an artist. Nasâ€™s choice to represent himself as all of the apostles, but to leave out the third character to the left from the coverâ€”which would be Judasâ€”suggests that this is not in fact his last supper, and that he will continue his career, where Jay has decided to retire.
Nas Hip Hop Is Dead | Jay-Z Kingdom Come
Contrasting The Black Albumâ€™s bleak, dark tones, Kingdom Come comes in a red case, with a red toned cover, marking Jayâ€™s official return to hip-hop. The transition from black to red, with the re-emergence of a hat on the cover, draws attention to Jayâ€™s revival. Red is traditionally a universal symbol of danger, but here, Jay flips it, using it as a symbol for re-birth.
While Hov revives himself with Kingdom Come, Nas proclaims that Hip Hop is Dead with an image of him standing over the grave, and figurative tombstone as is represented by the text. Nas holds a black rose, which just barely touches the hint of bling on his wrist, suggesting that there is a connection between hip-hopâ€™s death, and the bling era. Considering Streetâ€™s Disciple, the prevalence of alcohol, food, and general excess in the picture, it is possible that Nas was foreshadowing hip-hopâ€™s death, not his own, with his appropriation of Leonardoâ€™s Last Supper.