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A conversation between two men often seems shallow and unimportant. However, male conversation can actually provide good insight as to what men feel is masculine. As Jennifer Coates explains in her book Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinity, one can determine what masculine behavior is by observing dialogue between males. She points out, “in friendly talk men position themselves in relation to hegemonic masculinity” (41). This also holds true in unfriendly conversation, which is a more frequent occurrence in the rap world. Rap songs that serve to “diss” other artists often expose the actions of their targets as being the opposite of masculine behavior, and in turn they disclose what the artist feels is masculine. Jay-Z and Nas do just this in a series of songs that have become known as one of the most famous rap beefs of our time. Jay-Z’s song “Takeover” lashes out at rappers Nas and Prodigy (members of Mobb Deep). In response, Nas recorded “Ether”, and Jay-Z then countered with “Super Ugly”. Throughout each of these songs, Jay-Z and Nas both compliment themselves and insult each other. The lyrics of their songs show that physique, achievement, competition, authenticity, and heterosexuality are all masculine characteristics.
Physical size and strength has always been a way of determining masculinity. Jay-Z plays on this concept several times in “Takeover” by saying that he and his label Roc-A-Fella Records (R.O.C.) are big and strong. He raps, “R.O.C. too strong for y’all…/ Roc-A-Fella is the army, better yet the navy”. Jay-Z continues to call Nas and Prodigy small and weak with the lines, “Your peeps ain’t strong enough, fucka…/ we kill you motherfuckin ants with a sledgehammer,” and “You little FUCK, I’ve got money stacks bigger than you.” By saying that he (Jay-Z) is bigger and stronger, he tries to physically intimidate his targets. In nature, the larger, stronger males are more dominant, and so Jay-Z is trying to emphasize his physical dominance over Nas and Prodigy. The last line of the example has a dual-purpose, as it also contributes to one of the main masculine-building characteristics of rap: the emphasis on achievement.
Achievement is one thing that both Jay-Z and Nas use effectively to establish their masculinity. Their achievement comes in the forms of success, money, and women. In “Takeover” and “Ether” both artists claim to be the best.
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"Hegemonic Masculinity In The Jay-Z / Nas Beef." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Feb 2019
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With such an emphasis on achievement, we see the competitive nature of the two rappers come out. According to Coates, “telling stories becomes in itself a competitive activity, with speakers competing to boast about their triumphs or their cock-ups” (56). Jay-Z particularly uses competition in his lyrics to diss Nas. He drops lines such as, “I sold what ya whole album sold in my first week,” and “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song,” in “Takeover, and in “Super Ugly” he says, “I got mo’ shooters in Queens Bridge than you.” In each of these lines, Jay-Z acknowledges Nas’ achievement but then smothers it by saying that whatever Nas did, he did it better. With these competitive lines, Jay-Z is indirectly telling Nas, “I’m better than you”. Males typically want to show their peers that they are better than them, as this shows that they are more dominant and proves their masculinity.
In rap, boasts about masculinity don’t mean anything if the rapper is not authentic, and so Jay-Z and Nas question each other’s authenticity. In “Takeover” Jay-Z alleges that Nas lies about his street credibility in his past songs. He raps, “There’s only so long fake thugs can pretend/ Nigga; you ain’t lived it you witnessed it from your folks pad/ You scribbled in your notepad and created your life/ I showed you your first tec on tour with Large Professor/ (Me, that’s who!) Then I heard your album bout your tec on your dresser.” He claims that Nas only witnessed life in the ghetto from far away and is not really a thug. By calling him a fake, Jay-Z takes away Nas’ credibility and directly attacks his masculinity. Nas also attacks Jay-Z’s authenticity in “Ether” when he asks “How much of Biggie’s rhymes is gon’ come out your fat lips?” If Jay-Z really had stolen Biggie’s lines, not only would Jay-Z lose credibility because he couldn’t come up with his own lyrics, but also his audience would see him as a poser. In rap, posers are seen negatively and are not considered as masculine. Also, since authenticity and credibility are aspects of masculinity, questioning each other’s authenticity at the same time directly questions each artist’s masculinity.
Another way to question a man’s masculinity is to address their femininity. Homosexuality is considered perhaps one of the least masculine characteristics. As Coates explains, “Hegemonic masculinity is, in fact, heterosexual masculinity” (69). In the conversations between Jay-Z and Nas in their songs there are many lines that serve to question the other’s heterosexuality. Jay-Z raps in “Takeover”, “you was a ballerina I got your pictures I seen ya…. Youse the fag model for Karl Kani/Esco ads.” In his retort, Nas makes many homosexual remarks about Jay-Z. He starts by directly saying, “Ay, y’all faggots.” He also changes Jay-Z’s name and the name of his label to “Gay-Z and Cockafella Records,” and finally calls him “a dick-ridin’ faggot….” Both artists—Nas more so than Jay-Z—call each other gay. The greatest strike to a man’s masculinity is evidence that he is somehow feminine, or worse, gay, and so men talk in ways that “actively construct women and gay men as the despised other” (69). By calling each other gay, they are directly inflicting wounds on their masculinity.
The songs “Takeover” and “Super Ugly” by Jay-Z, and “Ether” by Nas, were released months apart. However, they are more than individual songs; rather they are really a conversation between to the two rappers. Further, the songs have more of a purpose than just being the mediums through which Jay-Z and Nas play out their beef. Yes, the listener hears what the two don’t like about each other, but there is more two it. The conversation between the two rappers also provides insight into how these men view masculinity. Throughout the songs, the insults and boasts about physical size and strength, achievements, authenticity, and heterosexuality, as well as the constant efforts to compete and one up the other, reveal that Jay-Z and Nas feel these traits are characteristics of masculinity. More importantly, through observing the conversation between these two men, we can get a better understanding of what men in general believe. This is true because most males believe similar traits are masculine. Also, since this conversation is between two famous rappers, their messages of masculinity will be absorbed by their listeners, and in turn their listeners will develop the same beliefs about masculinity as are portrayed in the songs. Thus, by listening to these songs by Jay-Z and Nas, we gain insight as to how a large portion of our society views masculinity.
Coates, Jennifer. Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinity. Malden, MA:
Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
“Jay-Z Lyrics- Super Ugly.” AZlyrics.com. A-Z Lyrics Universe. 19 Mar 2007
“Jay-Z Lyrics- Takeover.” AZlyrics.com. A-Z Lyrics Universe. 19 Mar 2007
"Nas Lyrics- Ether." AZlyrics.com. A-Z Lyrics Universe. 19 Mar 2007