The most common complaints leveled against Ether are that the beat sucks and Nas takes the homophobic insults a bit overboard. Well, yeah, the beat sucks (though because of how anthemic the song has become, it transcends Ron Brownz cheap production), and "Gay-Z and c*ckafella" aren't exactly the world's most astute disses. However, there are more than enough good shots to satisfy even the staunchest ammo aficionado. In addition, Ether is not all punchlines, rather it has proven to be more a biting psychological critique, especially seen in detailing several key points:
1) Jay-Z's obsession with Nas
"You been on my d*ck, n*gga, you love my style . . . With Hawaiian Sophie fame, kept my name in his music . . . . . . You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pus*y, a Stan . . . Wanted to be on every last one of my classics"
From sampling Nas on Dead Presidents, from sampling Nas on Rap Game-Crack Game, from referencing Nas on Sunshine, from referencing Nas on Where I'm From, from asking Nas to redo the hook on Dead Presidents, from asking Nas to appear in the video for Dead Presidents (where Jay apparently contacted E Money Bags to get at the Illmatic MC, "calling my crib and I ain't even give you my numbers"), the obsession had previously been a relatively guarded secret, but, with Ether, Nas put it on blast for the whole world to see. Many people have said that the verse from Takeover was directed at Nas almost from the point of view of a fan. In this context, that evaluation makes perfect sense.
2) Jay-Z's relationship with Biggie
"First, Biggie's ya man, then you got the nerve to say that you better than Big . . . How much of Biggie's rhymes is gon' come out your fat lips?"
From using Biggie's lyrics on a handful of songs, including a couple of his most notable, and even the very first track on Blueprint, Jay-Z has consistently crowded the border between homage and exploitation. A quote here or there is cool if they had a relationship like that, but, from all apparent sources, especially the current Reasonable Doubt XXL issue, while there may have been a mutual respect, the deep friendship that Jay continually portrays seems to have been more fiction than fact. What's more, on the song Hola Hovito, from Blueprint, Jay boldly stated, "if I ain't better than Big, I'm the closest one." Beyond having to rely on the late-great's lyrics at times, how are you going to say something like that when a) you're supposed to have been boys b) Big's not alive to cosign.
Moreover, there's a parallel between these first two attacks of Ether. Ready To Die came out in 1994, along with Illmatic. In that class of New York MCs, it was Biggie and Nas, alongside Raekwon and Ghostface too. Jay-Z then established himself in 1996, like an underclassmen, an upstart outsider, whose desire for greatness and simultaneous insecurity always made him want to hang with the older crowd and be accepted on their level. If we read into this theory, that explains Jay constantly wanting to partner with Nas and be seen as an equal with Biggie. It was the one way he felt he could belong; this then ties in to Ether's overall third point.
3) Jay-Z's Insecurity
"You a.ss went from Jaz to hanging with Kane, to Irv, to Big . . . You a d*ck-riding f*g**t, you love the attention"
In subsequent interviews from around the time of Stillmatic, Nas took shots at Jay and how he, Nas, didn't need to put out an album every year, have a song out every summer. Implying that Jay's flooding the market was born out of some great insecurity, Nas focused in on a suspect pattern in Jay-Z's behavior, as also mentioned above. However laudable or forgettable his output might have been, by jumping on whatever was hot at the moment and would keep his name in the air, we see almost a deep streak of personal inadequacy in Jay-Z's actions, the brand of poor self-esteem that overcompensates with overconfidence, a career based on chasing the cool. It's the type of shaky demeanor that may make it appear a necessity to be on the dial every second, forcing oneself onto the street's ear at every chance. So whereas Nas planned out a patient attack that saw months go by between Takeover and Ether, Jay-Z couldn't rest. He couldn't be satisfied with letting the battle end there. Instead, he rushed out not one but two responses. In the final score, it was this insecurity that eventually lost the battle.
Jay-Z's two responses were both failing attempts to try and rationalize with fans why he wouldn't lose, to try and convince himself that he hadn't lost already. Unfortunately, for him, Super Ugly, the "I slept with your baby's mother" freestyle, only further served as evidence of an obsessive relationship with Nas, and Euro Jay, a no-names-mentioned production released at the same time, played once and then dropped out of the conversation for good. In comparison with the songs that preceded it, it was just that forgettable. However, arguably the lowest point for Jay came after a Hot 97 radio poll, where listeners declared Ether the victor over Super Ugly. With the Brooklyn rapper coincidentally in studio on Angie Martinez's show, right after the results were announced, Martinez asked, "if you weren't you, would you think Ether was a hot joint?" Often taking long pauses or stuttering, Jay's answer was completely absent of his usual confidence, "Um . . . I would be a little--like, like me, as a guy, like, I would listen to the last verse and be like, 'wow . . . like . . . wow.' Y'know what I'm saying? Like, like, it just--it--it's uneasy. Y'know . . . like, I mean, me being--like, like . . .with the uh . . . it just--just--just . . . it's far, man, very vulgar."
Nas' public reaction to Super Ugly, on Fat Man Scoop's radio show, was a stark contrast, sounding all the more confident and unfazed: "When [Jay-Z] put on the Dre beat and started going into my baby moms, I said, 'oh, man, he's pissing her off, and he's really sounding emotional. . . . This is the biggest disrespect he feel like he can do.' He didn't feel like he could come at me with science in his rhymes, he felt like he had to come with disrespect. And I felt like it was disrespect. We all knew it, the whole crew knew it, we was bugging, we was laughing. I called my baby moms, she was laughing. She didn't hear it, but she heard about it. It was like, wow, this dude really overdid it. It was like, okay, this dude, where he's wrong is he's really talking about [my daughter] and this and that. How could you--let's be real, man, I did Ether to him. I got into his soul, and it's obvious that I broke his spirit. He was on the radio the next day with a broken spirit sounding like crazy. . . . I felt sorry for Jay. And I prayed for him, and I asked a few of my peoples to pray for him, because I felt that his spirit was really broken."
A battle is not won or lost on one song, on one side's attack, rather it is decided by the reaction, the counterattack, that the opposition puts up. If I throw a left hook at you, and you hardly move, it cannot be said that my left hook was the winning blow. If I then throw a right jab at your chin, and you fall backwards and to the mat, the right has made me victorious. See, a punch doesn't win or lose by itself, it's how my competitor receives the punch, how it makes him react, that ultimately sways the judges. You can say Ether had a wack beat and corny jokes, you can if you want, but something in those four minutes stung Jay real hard, sent the God MC to the mat. His reaction to the brutal slow-burn body shot that was Ether was a rushed freestyle named Super Ugly, a soon-forgotten studio scrap named Euro Jay, and an appearance on Hot 97, where all the normal Jay-Z charisma and energy had wilted away, until, finally, defeat sat in. At that moment, the ether mixture had reached its most explosive point.