It's now a tired discussion, but one that hasn't been definitively answered: Who's better: Queensbridge's prodigal son or Marcy's ambassador? The two have been at odds with one another since Nas reportedly flaked on a Reasonable Doubt recording session. They then entered into a back-and-forth that culminated in one of rap's greatest on-record beefs. A beef that produced some of each rapper's best work. It's also a beef that, according to Hot 97 listeners in 2001, Nas won. But when determining who's the better MC, we should start in 1994.
It was two years before Jay Z would drop his debut. It was the year when the Notorious B.I.G. would drop the highly anticipated Ready to Die. But, more importantly, it's the year when Nasir Jones dropped Illmatic, the culmination of his work with his mentor Large Professor and a bevy of the best producers available at the time: Q-Tip, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock. Lean, expertly produced, and preternaturally rapped, the 10-track project was given the then highly coveted five mic rating in The Source and would go down in history as the greatest rap album ever recorded. Despite himself releasing two albums that have been declared "classic" (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint), Jay Z has not released an album as good as Nas' debut.
It's not too difficult to surmise why: Jay Z has openly admitted to dumbing down his content to reach more listeners. Hov is a ruthless capitalist, a man who first sees bottom-lines and works backward in order to achieve his desired result. His goal, as he stated on record many times, was to become a multimillionaire many times over ("I'm raping Def Jam 'til I'm the Hundred-Million Man"). In order to accomplish that goal, Jay Z has trend-hopped his way through the years, adopting new flows, sounds, and styles from fresh talent. He hones his marketing acumen, figuring out new ways to bank off his image, even going so far as to fake retire.
Nas, for the most part, stayed true to himself. Sure, there was the whole Nastradamus fiasco, but everyone's allowed a misstep. Instead of borrowing flows, he refined the one he came in with. His flow is held in such high regard that newer rappers bragged about approximating it. Remember the opening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? There's a new NYC rapper who, though nice with the pen, is getting massive shine because people thought he was Nas. And at a time when older rappers are trying to figure out a way to gracefully age while staying hip to the new shit, Nas, as displayed on Life Is Good, is comfortable doing what feels comfortable to him. There's no Drake hook. No Hit-Boy beat. No European fashion on the cover. Just Nas. In 2014, that sounds like a win.
For more evidence of why Nas trumps Jay Z, watch the video for 10 Reasons Nas Is Better Than Jay Z.