Makaveli dropped six albums, four of them platinum, between 1991 and 1996 before he was gunned down in Las Vegas. The Notorious B.I.G. put out his first record in 1994 and was slain in Los Angeles weeks before his second release, "Life After Death," in 1997.
Both have successful releases after their killings, but their life spans, tragically, were too brief, and for that reason -- and that reason only -- it's unfair to put them up against a man with two decades in the game.
Nas still believes Pac and Biggie are "two of the greatest who've ever done it," and it's not because they died. Big L died. Guru died. Big Pun, Eazy-E and Ol' Dirty Bastard died, but they didn't leave the same legacy.
"I just think Biggie was something else. He was the Hitchcock of this thing, man. He told you a story. There was a seriousness that came with it that can't compare with nothing," Nas said.
He wishes the pair hadn't been taken in their mid-20s, he said, because they "would be at the top of the game" today, and they would've pushed him.
"I'd probably be better if they were still around," he said. "I think I'd be a lot better."
"To leave us with that kind of music at that young age is exceptional. There's no other word to say," he said. "They were bigger than all of us, even today -- their music, their sound, their topics. The way the world listened to them was a lot bigger than I would even say myself and the rest of us ... I don't think today we've made an official impact that those guys were just starting to make."
Watch the throne
... And then there was one: Jay-Z, a man who spent the the late 1990s and early 2000s also pushing Nas, and his buttons, during their quest to rock Biggie Smalls' "King of New York" crown.
Let's not bother with the details of their long-snuffed beef or who said what about whom on what album (though, let's face it, Nas' Ginsu verses on "Ether" made Jay's "Takeover" and "Super Ugly" sound a little nanny-nanny-boo-boo. Jigga himself called "Ether" an inescapable "figure-four leg lock").
But it's interesting to note what happened once their ugly rivalry was quashed.
Jay-Z had been named president of Def Jam Records, one of the most powerful posts in hip-hop. Jay-Z could have gone Mortal Kombat and finished Nas. He could've at least used his clout to make life unpleasant for the man who once called him gay, arguably the worst accusation you can levy in the macho world of hip-hop.
What did he do instead? He signed Nas and made a guest appearance on his first Def Jam album.
Or as Hova put it in a 2006 interview with MTV, "I didn't sign Nas; I partnered with Nas. You can't sign an artist of Nas' stature. You can only partner with him. ... Like I said, it's always been a level of respect there. I, for not one second, ever said I don't believe that he's one of the best lyricists ever."
Here is where that "lyricist" v. "hip-hop artist" distinction becomes important.
Jay-Z said it best himself: He's not a businessman; he's a business, man. When you consider 11 of his albums have sold at least a million copies -- seven of those 2 million or more -- as have his four collaborations, two with R. Kelly and one each with Linkin Park and Kanye West, it's as if Hova is King Midas, but with platinum.
He's a hit maker extraordinaire, maybe the world's best, but that doesn't translate to best lyricist. Jay-Z acknowledged as much on "Moment of Clarity" when he rhymed, "If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli."
Even in dissing Nas on "Takeover," he explained why he had sampled Nas' lyrics on "Dead Presidents": "So yeah, I sampled your voice; you was using it wrong/you made it a hot line; I made it a hot song."
And that, friends, is the crux of the debate: hot lines vs. hot songs. No one would deny Hova his dap, but it seems he has said, in both word and action, that it's tough to top Nas.
'Nasty, Nas the Esco to Escobar'