Nas vs. Jay-Z

Nas vs. Jay-Z

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 forth—most notably, “Either,” “Supa Ugly,” “Takeover,” and “Got Yourself a Gun”— 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.

Debut Albums
Nas – Illmatic | Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt

Nas vs. Jay-Z

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 they’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 Hova’s debut. Simple and sleek, yet capitalized text pushes the power theme further, and a tilted brim on Jay’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 “this is who I am.” A somewhat blurred image, and cryptic style text, however, highlights that fact that the story of Nas is complicated.

Already, on their debut’s, the seeds have been planted, distinguishing Nas as the lyrical MC, and Jay as the corporation.

Inspired Albums
Nas Street’s Disciple | Jay-Z The Black Album

Nas vs. Jay-Z

The Black Album marked Jay-Z’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 Jay’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 then—featuring the first appearance of a hat on one of his album covers since his debut—acts as the end of a chain of albums, and symbolizes the death of Jay-Z the rapper.

Nas, having already proclaimed himself as God’s Son, continues with his religious ties on Street’s Disciple, in a shot inspired by the Last Supper. Here we see the many incarnations of Nas over the years—including him as the Black Jesus, and as the street poet—highlighting the complexities that surround him as an artist. Nas’s choice to represent himself as all of the apostles, but to leave out the third character to the left from the cover—which would be Judas—suggests that this is not in fact his last supper, and that he will continue his career, where Jay has decided to retire.

2006 Releases
Nas Hip Hop Is Dead | Jay-Z Kingdom Come

Nas vs. Jay-Z

Contrasting The Black Album’s bleak, dark tones, Kingdom Come comes in a red case, with a red toned cover, marking Jay’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 Jay’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-hop’s death, and the bling era. Considering Street’s Disciple, the prevalence of alcohol, food, and general excess in the picture, it is possible that Nas was foreshadowing hip-hop’s death, not his own, with his appropriation of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

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Kendra Desrosiers

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  1. Fantastic article. You could have another section for the ‘Grey Album’ vs ‘Nastradoomus: Volume 1 & 2′, both great examples of mash-ups. Also it plays DangerMouse against MF Doom!

  2. both nas and jay z are notorious for having bad artwork. nas, after a classic cover on his debut, fell into a pattern of poor knock offs of that debut – it took him more than 10 years to get out of that pattern. jay z’s were simply generic, right up until his last two, which his reputation was beyond question.

    who were the art directors on these albums? there’s no mention of it.

    i wonder, if either of these rappers werent considered two of the top in the game, would this article exist? i doubt it would exist on the covers alone. this article is obstensibly about the covers, but it’s really just about the rappers. be honest about it.

  3. Great article, great site
    excellent subject and TWO BEST RAPPER US

    ICI C’est la France
    You don’t know the french rap ! is real because every rap is real
    because rap is real
    so you can understand a big emcee from french
    because the language is not a problem
    the flow is here too
    so : check it ! it’s just an exemple
    New school sound! but il y a aussi des old shool too …

    LOOk feat with US rapper because is good for the people us but after listen just the french rap … i don’t speak wery well english but the rap is the rap you know what i’m say !!!!

    Kool shen – Too shoot VI MY PEOPLE feat Big ali
    Ol kainry feat raekwon – de park hill from 91pise
    113 feat mobb deep Рl̩cole du crime
    Rohff feat the game – Tof of the world

    Albums big sold in france, hardcore
    Booba – Ouest side
    Rohff – Au dela de mes limites
    Sinik – Sang Froid

    Mafia k’1 fry (it’s a crew hardcore) new album coming soon

    The rap is a lot OF good rapperz : so check rap all over the world
    and in France !
    iT’s a bizness and a market here too
    the second/third nation of the rap


  4. International covers?..That’s a good idea. This section is devoted to just album covers not what rappers are considered the best because if this were so you might have seen some different faces up there. It’s based off their beef since it was one of the most respected rap beefs in the music industry.

  5. Wow,
    Very impressive article.

    Actualy, is not suprising that there is a story behind the covers.
    Their way of thinking reflected trough their lyrics, Why isn’t it possible that they did the same with their album covers?!

  6. I really liked the article, but I would have preferred if more albums were discussed. The writer did mention that they each were apart of 10 official albums.

  7. The literary nature of this comparison pays due tribute to the artists elevated intellect. Both of these artist are where they are because they have chosen to take a deeper look at the human condition, and in doing so, have enlightened their listeners. Jay-Z and Nas both have been instrumental in propagating the undeniable relevance of hip-hop; their provocative and metaphorical album covers are only one small sign of their relative genius.

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