Now for the best part. Nas' verse. This shit is so dense, dudes are gonna be decoding for years. But I'll scratch the surface.
"I feel like a black militant taking over the government"
First of all, Nas clearly differentiates himself from Jay's black Republican aesthetic. A militant is the ultimate revolutionary, willing to do whatever it takes to make change. Since Republicans are generally concerned with protecting the status quo, Nas' stance as a militant bringing change is decidedly opposed to Jay's conservatism.
In essence, Nas is sayin, I'm different. This is what Jay represents. And this is what I represent. We cool. But we still different.
Back to the line. "I'm like black militant - overthrowing the government".
Nas, the independent of all independents, Nas who stands alone (Bravehearts don't count), has joined Def Jam. Def Jam (while once representative of fresh new music) has in recent years become the emblem for big business hip-hop. They sell shit loads of albums (Jay, Kanye, LL, Beastie Boys, Red and Meth, Ludacris, Ne-Yo, whateverthefuck, DMX's early shit). They are in essense the government of hip hop (arguments can be made for Interscope and Atlantic, but c'mon, Def Jam is Def Jam). And here's Nas, suddenly on Def Jam, the self proclaimed black militant, taking over the government. Taking the behemoth that is Def Jam and crafting it in his own image. Daring to call an album "Hip-Hop is Dead" on the most fabled hip hop label. Dissing half the artists on the roster (Def Jam South).
"I'm back in the hood they like 'Hey Nas' - blowin on purp - reflecting on they lives"
Superficially, Nas establishes himself as the street artist. Still relevent in the hood. Still tight with the ones strugglin. Smokin weed, thinking about their lives, as Nas reminisces on his. A parallel is made between Nas and the common man.
Looking deeper, Nas is beginning his story. He's transporting the listener back to his hood days. "I'm back in the hood". The setting is now 1994. The movie has just flashed back. "They like hey Nas"... QB is still cool with Nas, this is before the beef with various QB rappers. "Blowin on purp reflectin on they lives". Nas is tellin you he's one of them now, and in this song he's reflecting on his life. He's reflecting on the ups and downs, the success, the failures. The love, the hate. Specifically Carmen.
"Couple of fat cats - couple of A.I.s - dreamin of fly shit instead of them grey skies"
Nas (the film's director) cuts now to various locations that are parallel with this time setting (1994). Marcy, Brooklyn. A young "fat cat" Jay-Z dreams of "fly shit". Harlem, NY. Another fat cat, Sean Combs is starting Bad Boy. Cut to Georgetown University. "A.I" or Allen "The Answer" Iverson, is playin college ball dreaming of the NBA. What do these "Fat Cats" and "A.I.s" have in common? Well its what they have in Carmen. They all slept with her. And thus they are all relevant to the beef story Nas and Jay are spittin about on this song.
This line is dope because it establishes a parallel between all the players in this film. Nas, Jay, Puff, and AI were all started out in roughly the same place. Street kids dreamin of "fly shit" instead of the depression and "grey skies" of ghetto life.
If you listen to the background you'll hear faintly the sounds of someone moaning (it may be Jay's ad libs) but it also serves to underline the connection between the Fat Cats and A.I.s. They all fucked Carmen.
"Grey 5s - hate us - wishin our reign dies"
Nas flashes forward to the current haters against the aforementioned. In him and Jay's case it's Dip Set and Camron. Also 50, and various QB affiliates. For Puff it's basically the entire hip-hop underground. For Allen Iverson it's David Stern with his "NBA fashion issues" (see Hip Hop is Dead track) (Iverson is notorious for bringing the thug aesthetic onto the basketball court. Something league commissioner David Stern and his conservative friends are trying to change (not because they're necessarily racist, which they may be, but because they want to expand the NBA to more country audiences).
"Pitch sling pies, and *****s they sing why - guess they ain't strong enough to handle they jail time"
Direct reference to Cormega and Lake. Ex jail heads (and slingers) who have beef with Nas. Brutal line "guess they ain't strong enough to handle they jail time". Nas is taunting them, saying prison made them soft and now they expect Nas to hold their hands.
"Weak minds keep tryin - follow the street signs".
This expands the diss to all weak rappers currently goin at Nas. Jim Jones, Cam, Nore, Uno Dos. :Follow the street signs" references the underground nature of these beefs. These are out of the public eye and known only to hip-hop heads.
"I'm standing on the roof of my building - I'm feelin the whirl wind of beef - I inhale it"
Presented here are two different eras of Nas. One is Nasty "Kid Wave" Nas standing on top of the QB Housing Projects, Building 15. He's dealin with hood shit. Dealin with the dudes that merked Ill Will. Dealing with his fallout with Cormega.
The other is Nasir "God's Son" Jones. He's standin on top of his mansion in Long Island. He's beefing too. First with Jay-Z and The Roc, now with Dip Set, G-Unit and QB.
"The whirl wind of beef". It's a force that Nas can't control, a whirlwind, a entity of nature. It exists outside of him. It's tangible, he can feel it. It's chaotic, disorienting. And what does Nas do? He inhales it. He internalizes it. He makes it his. Like inhaling weed smoke, he is changed by its chemical nature. He is energized.
"Like an acrobat ready to hurl myself through the hoops of fire"
But unlike weed, the beef doesn't slow him or hinder his drive. Instead it fuels him. It gives him the verbal agility that an acrobat has physically. It allows him to drop albums like "Illmatic" or "Stillmatic". It gives him courage to go through the "hoops of fire". The critics, the fickle fans, the fickle radio DJs. If he can overcome beef, he can overcome that shit too.
"Sippin 80 proof - bulletproof under my attire"
80 proof represents the hard core shit that Nas spits. The strongest of the strong. This music is pure. "Bullet proof under my attire", he's protected, from physical bullets, and verbal bullets.
"Could it be the forces of darkness against hood angels that's good that form street politics"
This is the deepest line in the whole song. I could write 10 pages about this. But I'll keep it as brief as possible. The forces of darkness here represents many things. First it's the animosity that grew between him and Jay. The discord between two men. The beef itself. The disharmony. It is also the things that caused the beef. The lust for wealth. The greed. The things that plague every hood, every man. The lust for power. The lust for women. It's the evil inherent in mankind. The remnants of original sin. Nas makes it Biblical with the angel reference. These angels may be literal angels from a Judeo Christian heaven. They are also figurative angels. Nas and Jay-Z could both be angels trying to uphold hip hop. But going beyond that, Nas is talking about the good forces in the hood, the benevolent in life. He's talking about Ann Jones trying to keep her son away from the forces of darkness. Away from the gun slingers and crack dealers. About all the mothers protecting their sons and the wives taking care of their men. The love. The caring. The basic qualities of human kind that are good.
And the oppostion between these "angels of good" and "forces of darkness" creates "street politics". The debate between right and wrong. Is it right to deal drugs to feed one's family? Is it right to kill in defense? These are examples where the good and the bad meet. These are questions of hood politics. The ethics of survival living.
"Makes a sweet honest kid turn illegal for commerce - to get his feet out of them Converse - that's my word"
Nas brings it full circle with this line. First it relates to the previous line. A sweet honest kind, who's tempted by the darkness, the greed, the wealth. He wants to feed his family, move his mom out of the hood. There's good intention. But what can he do? A 9 to 5 won't give him shit. College is not an option. So he turns illegal. Converse, the shoes of the street represent the poverty. Drug dealing gets him better shoes, better cars, more power, and perhaps the chance to help those he loves. But he hurts hundreds in the process.
Who is Nas talking about? Most generally he's talking about youth everywhere who are tempted by evil. More specifically the urban youth of the ghettos. And finally, he's talking about Jay and himself. They both started out innocent. Jay with his mom buyin him a boom box, and Nas playin his pop's trumpet. Then they experienced the evils of the hood. Nas with Will's death. Jay with crack dealin down South. They both did shady shit. Let their lust for women corrupt their relationships with women they loved. Let their lust for power and jealousy and resentment throw them into an ugly, personal and public beef. They both lived their verses. They embody what they say. And that's their word.
Roll the credits.