No one is quite hyping up the head-to-head battle between Jay Rock and Nas in hip-hop releases this week — at least not on the level that Nas’ producer Kanye West gassed his Graduation debut against 50 Cent’s Before I Self Destruct ten years ago — but it’s still interesting to see echoes of the contrasts that drove the prior competition, especially since there aren’t any other high-profile releases slated for this Friday. While Apollo Brown & Locksmith’s No Question is scheduled for independent release, all eyes will be on Kanye West’s latest 7-song release and Top Dawg Entertainment’s secret weapon come June 15.
Now, about those contrasts: First and most obvious, the “old guard” vs. “next generation” comparison is almost too pronounced to ignore. It’s especially intriguing that Kanye finds himself on the other side of the equation this time around — cue the “Circle Of Life” and wide shot of Pride Rock. While Nas represents the prior generation’s ideal of hip-hop, Jay Rock is a prominent member of the culture’s current vanguard of rappers and producers alongside Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, and the rest of his TDE brethren. Furthermore, where Nas has been saddled with the intelligent, sophisticated rap signifier the way Kanye once was against 50 Cent, Rock certainly brings a gruff, street-ready attitude to his music.
However, the comparisons aren’t exactly one-to-one, either. Jay Rock and Nas have far more in common than Kanye West and 50 Cent did in 2007; while they could be viewed as opposite sides of a coin, on closer examination, their output to this point is a lot more similar than it is different. Jay Rock may not be known for sermonizing like Nas on “I Can,” but he’s fit in well enough alongside his fellow Black Hippy crew members which include the chakra-reading Ab-Soul and revolutionary Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, Nas has been known to share a street tale or two on his more thuggish output, establishing the “Nas Escobar” persona on albums like I Am… and Nastradamus.
It’s also been a while since either of the two rappers actually released a record — in Nas’ case, it’s been almost six years, while Jay Rock’s 90059 came out in 2015. They both have well-established styles and reputations: Rock for being the low-key, under-the-radar member of TDE who might just pop up and kill a feature without warning and Nas for being a decorated rap elder statesman, helping shepherd the careers of up-and-comers like Bishop Nehru and LGP Qua.
The similarities and differences between the two aside, here are two hotly anticipated returns for two of rap’s most dedicated performers, both at critical points in their respective careers.