Epic Records/Ralph Ordaz
A lot of people do not like DJ Khaled. That’s not a controversial statement; it’s as close to being outright fact as anything in our post-truth, “fake news” saturated modern world. But on Khaled’s glitzy new album, Khaled Khaled, he tries hard to give us reasons to appreciate his presence. One of those attempts is the latest in a series of ultra-rare occurrences in hip-hop that I’m almost shocked he didn’t try to have minted as an NFT first: A collaboration between erstwhile foes Jay-Z and Nas on the song “Sorry Not Sorry.”
These are a rare animal indeed, the rap equivalent of Halley’s Comet. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two veteran rappers have seemed reluctant to join forces over the years. After all, some truly nasty things were said during their early 2000s war of words that took nearly a decade more to address and get over — if they were ever truly able to actually get over them. Between their cult-favorite status, continued longevity, popularity, and commercial viability over the last 30 years, and the animosity that once simmered between them, their team-ups are infrequent events that would make most Marvel execs salivate.
Unfortunately, they’ve also never truly lived up to their hype, as the actual products have nearly always fallen well short of their outsized expectations. Again, I’m not trying to be controversial here; you could almost sense the disappointment of long-time fans in their Twitter reactions the night of the album’s release. Not even Khaled’s motivational speaker energy could liven up the proceedings. Nas and Jay-Z’s verses sound like they come from two different songs; although Jay’s verse is light and bouncy, Nas seems almost bored by his own money talk as he brags about getting in on cryptocurrency early (tech bro rap has a very limited audience, as it’s a lot like trying to have a conversation with a tech bro).
The reasons behind this are likely myriad, from lack of chemistry between the collaborators (the people want Rae-and-Ghost-level verse trading, but Nas really only has that with AZ while Jay’s last real back-and-forth was with Kanye West on “Otis”) to perhaps some lingering tension between the two. Fans have noticed Jay’s unfortunate tendency to step on Nas’s release dates, Nas refuses to punch up his verses after hearing Jay’s contributions, and their subject matter has been, after everything the two have been through together, very shallow and empty, more flash than substance.
It’s been a problem throughout each of their prior collaborations — two on their own, and one with Ludacris — that bears some looking into. So, here’s a timeline of their collaborations, beginning at the beef, as we try to get to the bottom of why these two just can’t seem to find their groove.
The only time Nas washed Jay came during their actual battle in 2001. Countless histories have been written already but Nas was the consensus winner even if there are plenty of Jay-Z diehards who’ll take their “Takeover was better” beliefs to the grave (guilty). While “Takeover” kicked things off with a flurry of bars undermining Nas’s newly adopted mafioso image at the time, as well as poking at the declining public perception of his music’s quality, Nas’s schoolyard taunts got personal, ratcheting the excitement up several more notches. Unfortunately, it was Jay who blew a gasket, revealing his hurt feelings by sharing the “Supa Ugly” freestyle to radio and later apologizing after being admonished by his mom.
In 2006, just two months after Jay-Z’s “I Declare War” concert which saw the two former foes share the stage for the first time since the extremely early ’90s — possibly ever — Nas and Jay delivered their first collaboration on Nas’s eighth album Hip Hop Is Dead. It should have been a historic moment — certainly, it came with an epic beat. But it was also bogged down by its focus on tax brackets and the relative disparity between the two performances. The normally laid-back Jay sounds energetic, going for broke with rhyme schemes deadset on proving he could hang with the more “lyrical” Nas, who took the opportunity to rap an overly-smooth verse that completely ignores the monumental vibe of the beat or the moment.
A year later, Nas would return the favor, appearing on Jay-Z’s 2007 movie companion album American Gangster. This time, the beat was an airy production by No I.D. that had a lot of potential but becomes overwhelming after a few repetitions. Again, the unrelatable subject matter weighs on the proceedings, but this time, the two reverse roles. Jay delivers a lethargic pair of verses that comes across as careless (Jay hollering “Let that b*tch breathe” when he was barely jogging wasn’t the flex he thought, making him look out of shape after a light jog), while Nas yanks out the brakes for an overly wordy contribution that could have used a lighter touch.
“I Do It For Hip-Hop” (with Ludacris)
This is the closest the two have come to a balance on one of their collaborations, probably because of Ludacris’s leavening influence. His boisterous, megaphone flow elevates the energy of the downtempo track, although the verse sequence means the coasting that Jay and Nas do here resembles a hang glider aimed at a cliff. They don’t quite crash; Jay finds his sense of humor again and Nas displays some timely self-awareness, pulling things up just in time to stick the landing. What works is getting the two out of their “emotionless rich guy” schtick. While too much nostalgia can get treacly, there’s just enough of it here to transport listeners back to blocks where the New Yorkers owned their crafts, more concerned with accessible endeavors.
“Sorry Not Sorry”
One thing this track does right: pairing that dreamy, glittering beat with James Fauntleroy and Beyonce vocals — pardon, Harmonies By The Hive vocals — and finding a smooth lane that reflects the elegance and opulence the two rappers try to convey. But again, it all sounds kind of perfunctory; they’re just listing brags, checking off lists, barely trying to impress, and certainly not trying to compete. Oh, and Nas calls himself “Cryptocurrency Scarface,” which doesn’t call to mind a swaggering rap titan so much as a nerdy, underachieving undergrad, trying way too hard to shed his dorky high school image — think Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Jay’s verse is clever and smooth and makes you wonder why Rick Ross wasn’t paired with him instead because this is very “Maybach Music” territory… it just turns out Jay and Nas aren’t the right Lewis and Clark to explore it.
Clearly, mellower beats are the way to go, but it seems like the two should be more collaborative in their approach if they really want to make people care about their collaborations. As it stands, it feels like they’re writing their verses to different beats in separate rooms and slapping them together. Considering the rarity of their alliances, fans deserve more than this slapdash approach. I’m not saying they have to write each other’s bars, but the joy evident in their collabs with other artists is always lacking when they get together. Maybe they can never truly get past what Jay said about Nas’s baby seat or Nas comparing Jay-Z to Joe Camel, or maybe the hype will simply always overwhelm the final product. But considering the reputations and skill levels involved, perhaps it’s just about finding the right person to put it all together. Khaled came close, maybe another producer will be the one to pull it off.
Khaled Khaled is out now via Epic Records. Get it here.