Jay-Z and Nas Battle It Out in Print

Photo: Courtesy of Perseus Books Group

Academic and culture pundit Michael Eric Dyson is hardly in need of street cred, having long held the respect of the hip-hop world at large. (He was even name-checked on Dirty South rapper Killer Mike's "That's Life.") Nonetheless, Dyson's new book, Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, boasts two huge names on its cover: Jay-Z writes Dyson's intro, and Hova's erstwhile arch-enemy Nas writes the book's "outro." Dyson dedicates the book to the two rappers, in verse no less:

Two Rhetorical Geniuses

Two of the Greatest Artists of All Time

and

Two Wise Black Men

Who peacefully settled their differences

Joined forces

And changed the game forever.

We know that Jay-Z and Nas can both write rhymes, but how do they do writing prose?

Jay-Z's intro is an impressively eloquent, pointed ode to Dyson's body of work, musing that the author "is telling all of those countless people whose minds are closed by bigotry or contempt that hip hop is American. Blackness is American. I am American." His close: "It's one thing for young people to see rappers making appearances on TRL or to see their records fly up the charts. But it is another thing for a young boy from the hood to go into the library at his school and check out a book on why his culture matters. Quite literally, Dyson has written that book."

Nas makes his contribution at the end of the book with a harsh outro reminding us that (surprise!) hip-hop is dead. Or at least close to being so: "The sirens may be drawing nearer by the second, and the afternoon's industrial haze may predict a dark night, but it's warriors like Michael Eric Dyson who can make sure that hip hop sees another dawn." (One wonders if Dyson knew what he was getting into.) Nas adds that Dyson "can give hip hop a future by making us hold tight to the strength of our past and by making apparent the promise of our present." But wait — wasn't the point that hip-hop has no promise? Or was it that current hip-hop has no future but that a new, promising hip-hop will rise phoenixlike from the old hip-hop's ashes? Get that rapper an editor! —Sara Cardace