Jay Z won. I believed this in 2001, and I believe it now. In 2008, I wrote a whole chapter in the anthology Rock And Roll Cage Match about how I believe Jay won his grand 2001 feud against Nas, and I don’t want to rewrite that whole chapter in this paragraph, but I’ll sum it up as quickly as I can here. Jay won based on what came after the feud, when Jay became rap’s all-time corporate magnate and Nas continued to be a guy who raps. Jay cemented things in 2006, when he signed Nas to Def Jam and got to come off as a magnanimous ruler, forgiving an old rival his transgressions by throwing him a bone. But he won it in 2001, too, by sounding calm and controlled and regal and confident and above-it-all on “Takeover.” He sounded like he didn’t take Nas seriously, but he still precisely filleted his whole existence.
When Nas fired back at Jay on “Ether,” he was not calm or controlled or regal or confident or above-it-all. He was incensed. He was mouth-frothing, wild-eyed furious. He was haywire with rage. He sounded like a man backed into a corner, throwing everything he had at his enemy, just to survive. Some of his attacks landed. Some of them didn’t. Some of them were so out-of-pocket dumb that they made Nas look bad: “Rockefeller died of AIDS, that was the end of his chapter / And that’s the guy that you chose to name your company after?” Sixteen years later, that quality is what’s most compelling about “Ether.” It’s not a good song, the way “Takeover” is. It’s not even trying to be a good song. Instead, it’s a panic move, a sweaty palm slammed down on the nuclear-launch button.
In the years since then, plenty of rappers have used that “Ether” beat to target an opponent, but none of them has managed to capture that same frantic intensity. Or, rather, none of them did before this past weekend, when Remy Ma released “Shether” and declared all-out war on Nicki Minaj. “Shether” is such a savage, brutal, merciless attack that it barely even registers as a piece of music. And it’s not a good song. It’s “Ether” stretched out to seven minutes, which is not anything that anyone ever needed. It has no hook, no structure, not even a central idea beyond “fuck Nicki Minaj.” But that’s why it works; it’s what’s impressive about it. Remy spends the entire track hammering the shit out of every weak spot in Nicki Minaj’s armor. It’s just ridiculous.
As with “Ether,” some of those attacks don’t land, and some of them are just downright petty. Who cares, for instance, who Nicki has slept with? If that was the only real point of contention, the track wouldn’t register, just as Meek Mill didn’t dent Drake when he only went after the ghostwriting allegations. Remy has her own ghostwriting allegations, but she has plenty else as well. She’s got Nicki’s butt implants: “Talking ’bout bringing knives to a fight with guns / When the only shots you ever took was in your buns.” She’s got the business sense that led Nicki to sign an exploitative 360 deal: “Your money go through five niggas before you touch it / Any videos, promotions come out of your budget.” She’s got the idea that Nicki is a bad influence: “She the one misleading the black girls / All these fake asses, influenced by that girl / Dying from botched surgeries, what a sad world.” And, crossing about 15 different lines, she’s got the fact that Nicki’s brother was indicted for raping a 12-year-old: “You paid for your brother’s wedding? That’s hella foul / How you spending money to support a pedophile?” That moment when Remy brings Nicki’s brother into it is the moment “Shether” stops being a diss track and becomes something more like a massacre.
There is backstory here, if that matters. In 2007, when Nicki was still in her Smack DVD phase and Remy was still a force in New York rap, Nicki said some things that Remy didn’t like over Terror Squad’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah” beat. Nothing really came of it. Then, a year later, Remy went to prison for shooting her friend in the stomach. She stayed in prison for six years, the exact stretch of time that Nicki found stratospheric fame. (This is not lost on Remy: “Jealous bitch, you was happy when they took me / Best thing that happened to you was when they booked me.”) When Remy finally got out, she and Nicki seemed to be OK with one another, but they’ve been throwing decreasingly subtle shots at each other on records and in freestyles for months now. And on the back of last year’s surprise-hit Fat Joe collab “All The Way Up,” Remy is once again a force in New York rap. Plato O Plomo, the collaborative album that Remy and Joe released a little while ago, didn’t leave much of an impression, but she is still very much back. And on top of that, she’s a hard and nasty and fearsome rapper, and Nicki can’t ignore her. So it didn’t make any difference that Nicki is way, way more famous and popular than Nicki. Those little darts mattered.
The final straw, it seems, came last week, when Nicki seemingly devoted her entire verse on Gucci Mane’s “Make Love” to Remy: “You see, silly rabbit, to be the queen of rap / You gotta sell records, you gotta get plaques / S, plural, like the S on my chest / Now sit your dumb ass down, you got a F on your test.” In most situations, this would be a pretty effective slap-down, even if she never mentioned Remy’s name. But it is not “Takeover.” And in retrospect, it needed to be “Takeover,” especially given how Remy flipped that whole verse back on her, turning it into a ghostwriting allegation: “To be the queen of rap, you gotta actually rap / The whole industry know that your shit is a wrap.” Nicki will have to respond to Remy. This whole thing has captured people’s imaginations, and Nicki’s vague Instagram response will not be enough.
But what will be enough? At this point, Nicki can reasonably claim to be the greatest female rapper of all time, if that gender distinction even matters. When she’s trying hard, she is one of the greatest rappers working today. She has opened lanes that seemed closed years ago, when Remy was struggling to get anything other than local airplay for her solo singles. Nicki is versatile enough to excel in just about any rap format. She shows up on huge pop singles all the time. She was pretty good in Barbershop: The Next Cut. By most metrics, Nicki Minaj is a much better rapper than Remy Ma. But it’s still tough to imagine Nicki winning this feud. It’s tough to imagine what a Nicki victory would even look like. Nicki has been involved in plenty of petty little public feuds in recent years, but as Remy points out on “Shether,” those feuds have been against pop singers like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.
Remy Ma is not Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift. Remy is someone who rapped on M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” remix way the hell back in 2000, and she is not going to let anyone forget that: “I’m supposed to be scared because you brought your Barbie chain back? / I’ll revert to ‘Ante Up,’ you get your Barbie chain yapped.” On “Lean Back,” Remy was responsible for delivering one of the hardest verses that’s ever appeared on a #1 single. Remy went to prison for shooting her own friend in the stomach. And while she might not be able to jump on EDM tracks the way Nicki can, Remy has the advantage of sounding absolutely disgusted every time she raps. In a feud, that’s an asset, not a liability. It’s not that Remy has no weak spots; Nicki can always score points just by saying, “You are literally married to Papoose.” But to recover from something like “Shether,” Nicki is going to need to show a new kind of toughness.
Lots of internet commentators are pointing out, quite rightly, that it’s dispiriting to see two of rap’s most powerful women going at one another. Women in rap have been beefing with one another since Roxanne Shante and the Real Roxanne, and Nicki’s had her own past dust-ups with Lil Kim. (In fact, they brought the best out of her.) It’s one of those weird things, like the way every white rapper had to feud with every other white rapper until about a decade ago. And maybe things shouldn’t be like that. But on the other hand, this is one of the most exciting rap feuds in a long time because it’s the rare example of a megastar being tested.
When Drake and Meek Mill first tangled two years ago, I got excited, since I thought Drake was finally going to lock up with someone who could conceivably win against him. Of course, Meek crumpled under pressure. Drake just annihilated him. It was barely a feud. But here, we’ve got that same dynamic at work: a megastar being attacked by someone tougher and hungrier. This time, though, Remy has already done about 10 times the damage that Meek ever managed. She tossed out her “Ether” before waiting for the “Takeover.” And this time around, Nas might win.
1. YFN Lucci – “Ammunition” (Feat. Trae Pound)
He doesn’t have the hooks or mystique, but YFN Lucci stands out in the vast Atlanta trap wave right now because he can do bittersweet longing in ways that nobody else can. There’s plenty of moodiness in trap music, but there’s not a whole lot of this kind of moodiness.
2. Taylor Bennett – “Grown Up Fairy Tales” (Feat. Chance The Rapper & Jeremih)
If Taylor Bennett has a problem, it’s that he has all of his brother Chance’s giddy optimism without any of that weary, ground-down spirit. But that’s not a problem on a song that marshals the power of Chance, Jeremih, and a piano-tinkling Mike Will, letting light amounts of heaviness in and bringing some dark perspective to all Taylor’s starry-eyed exuberance.
3. Young Scooter – “Cook Up” (Feat. Young Thug)
Young Thug is basically gargling lava on this song. That is all.
4. Cadence Weapon – “My Crew (Wooo)”
My fellow early-’00s internet rap critic finds communal joy over a Kaytranada beat that sounds like R2D2 playing sitar.
5. Brother Ali – “Pen To Paper”
Brother Ali continues to sound like the Scribble Jam version of Scarface, all motivational bluster and halfway-melodic preacher intonations. Here, he tells his superhero origin story, and it’s the most impactful thing I’ve heard from him in a long time.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Wow! Found home video of me and my friends when Mask Off plays pic.twitter.com/3ZDlSmicbs
— Gucci Ma'am, MBA (@_CakeBawse) February 27, 2017