“The essence of hip-hop, the battle,” Jay-Z once declared, and when it comes to his most famous battle, everyone seems to agree that Nas won it on the back of such criticisms as “Eminem murdered you on your own shit.” Point of pride—it’s your song, you better be able to carry it.
But I always felt Eminem’s murdering Jay-Z on his own shit was a kind of weak criticism, at least on the specific song in question—“Renegade” features an all-time verse from Eminem which outshines a merely very good verse from Jay-Z. But everyone was very sensitive about the criticism, which is an interesting thing to think about in retrospect: by these standards, Kanye West has been murdered so many times on his own shit that it’s demeaning, or something. Except it’s not; by this point we don’t care and good for us. In fact, West has a long tradition of coaxing not just great verses, but the best verses a rapper’s ever given. The first time I really became aware of this was way back in Late Registration:
Like Paul Wall even knew some of those words—“immaculate” “illuminate” and “insinuate” and such, just a slithering, swaggering verse. What has Paul Wall done again, besides this? For all I know he’s become a monk sworn to an oath of silence.
West’s new album basically becomes a baroque exercise in glutting featured artists in there—someone wrote that West uses guest artists like other people use instruments—and naturally some of them give absurdly good performances, much better, I’d suspect, than they’ll give again. A curious talent for a rapper.