Despite being a hip-hop fan, I’ve never been able to get into Jay-Z. I’m not sure why. Most people have him in their top 5 rap artists of all-time. He is also one of the biggest hip-hop performers ever.
I think my inability to rock with Jay-Z is due to a few reasons.
One, I didn’t listen to much new hip-hop from 1997 to 2002. I bought some Wu-Tang, Def Squad, and Duck Down and a few other random albums, but hip-hop really didn’t appeal to me much during that time. I was in my rock phase.
Two, in the late 90s, hip-hop became really materialistic. It was no longer about being hungry, it was about cars, wine, and the finer things in life. The songs about living in the ghetto were gone, at least from mainstream rap. The conscious rap had taken a backseat to the bling. Although Puff Daddy was the top dog of this movement, I considered Jay-Z part as well.
Three, Mafioso rap didn’t appeal to me. Even as a big Wu-Tang fan, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s crime raps weren’t my favorites. Sure, they were good stories, but they told the wrong message. I couldn’t relate to a drug dealer carrying keys from Colombia. Although I couldn’t really relate to someone from the ghetto either, I could relate to being broke or being hungry for success.
Four, I thought if Biggie was still alive, Jay-Z wouldn’t have been as big. The first time I heard Jay-Z he was a gimmicky fast-rhyming rapper on Big Daddy Kane’s “Show and Prove”. Then after Biggie died, Jay-Z took his spot as a “King of New York”. The shift seemed too fake for me.
Now, nearly 20 years after its release, I bought Jay-Z’s debut album “Reasonable Doubt
”. A few factors are behind me finally giving Jay-Z a try. One, too many hip-hop friends have questioned my disinterest and I respect their views. Second, I am a big Skyzoo fan. Skyzoo claims to be heavily influenced by Jay-Z. It only stands to reason then that I should hear artists who influenced artists I like.
Of course, some songs on “Reasonable Doubt” I have heard before. But I am listening to the entire album from beginning to end. Something I have never done.
Keep in mind, what I liked in 1997 is different than what I like in 2015. I didn’t vary my hip-hop production back then. I liked sparse, gloomy, boom-bap type beats. I liked early Wu-Tang, the dark funk of Def Squad, and the murkiness of Duck Down Records. Now, I am a little more open-minded.
With that, let’s press play:
1) Can’t Knock the Hustle
– Ten seconds in, already starts with the cocaine/Columbia references. Not a good sign. I have heard this song before. Plenty of times. First verse, so many high-life references, but at least he says his cup runneth over with hundreds, not grands. Although the Mary J. Blige chorus is very nice. I feel like the chorus is about trying to come up, but the verses are about having made it. That’s kinda confusing. Or is Jay-Z fantasizing in his verses?
2) Politics as Usual
– Never heard this before. This beat is super nice. More bling raps. Jay-Z’s flow is as smooth as wine, but once again am I supposed to believe he is rapping about himself, or a Walter Mitty fantasy?
3) Brooklyn’s Finest
(w/ Notorious BIG) – Same pre-song voice as the first song, so there is a theme going on here. First verse by Jay-Z felt rushed and way too fast. Notorious BIG’s first was nice. Nice back and forth on the second verses. Really like Jay-Z’s third verse. Both rappers sound really nice on the Clark Kent beat. Some have called this a “passing of the torch song”; I can see that. A little too heavy on the materialistic clichés, but definitely a celebration of two of the best Brooklyn rhymers.
4) Dead Presidents II
– First thing is the Nas sample. I’ve liked Nas since day 1. When Nas stays away from materialism, he one of the best in the business. There a few lines in here Skyzoo uses in his verses. Is Jay-Z talking about slinging drugs or his rhymes? This song I can get into. Definitely a braggadocio song. And the beat is very nice. Almost an answer to a Nas song.
5) Feelin’ It
– “I’m keeping it realer than most.” – No. Just no. Nothing about Jay-Z seems real. That’s my biggest problem with Jay-Z. But back to the song. This song is very smooth. Jay-Z’s ability to speed up and slow down is impressive. Like he learned Biggie’s slow cadence and Jay-Z’s own former fast flow and incorporated the two.
– Produced by DJ Premier. This beat! First verse is super. No mention of diamonds, just getting up. Second verse, a crime story. I can get into that in a Raekwon sort of way. But while Raekwon makes it clear the pusher in his songs is not himself, Jay-Z makes it seem like he is talking about himself. Which is confusing. Third verse, another coming up tale. Overall, one of the best songs so far.
7) 22 Two’s
– Jay-Z shouting out Tribe Called Quest. I like the wordplay of two, too, and to. The beat is very nice. Gloomy and dark. Casket and sarcastic? Very nice. This track shows Jay-Z’s ability as a rhymer. Which I definitely don’t argue.
8) Can I Live
– Another very smooth beat and a nice monologue by Jay-Z in the intro. Jay-Z goes very slow and precise on this song. I would compare this song to an AZ song. Although I don’t have a lot of recent AZ, Doe or Die
is a classic.
9) Ain’t No Nigga
(with Foxy Brown) – I had this song off the Nutty Professor soundtrack. Jay-Z goes materialistic verse for materialistic verse with Foxy Brown, one of the best name-brand materialistic spitters of the late 90s. Materialistic rhymes and steroid home run hitters were one-dimensional fads of the late 90s. This beat has been used by a few others throughout the years.
10) Friend or Foe
– Another DJ Premier beat. So nice. Jay-Z putting his claim on the game. The horns have a very jazzy, Harlem Renaissance flow. Almost classical. Jay-Z’s reference to Chris Tucker’s “ever, ever, ever come around here no more” Friday quote makes me think this is a denouncement of West Coast rappers coming to NY.
11) Coming of Age
(w/ Memphis Bleek) – Fast Jay-Z rhyme style. There is a Big Daddy Kane feeling to this song. Memphis Bleek doesn’t sound bad, but you can tell he is trying to be on Jay-Z’s level. But it’s not working. But maybe the protégé/ teacher is the theme of the song. But what happened to Memphis Bleek? Did he learn?
12) Cashmere Thoughts
– “Talk jewels and spit diamonds.” – Nice, but not jewels in the Wu-Tang sense. Not jewels I can grow with. Hey, a Return of the Jedi reference. Always worth a point or two. This beat is super nice. Sort of something I can see Snoop Dogg rhyming on. That sing-song cadence is also almost NY Snoop-like.
13) Bring It On
(ft Big Jaz and Sauce Money) – A third DJ Premier song. Slower than the other two. Again jazzy in a Sinatra, big band way. A Fat Joe sample – which is interesting as Joe is from the Bronx, like the Nas sample from Queens. The Brooklynite Jay-Z nodding to the other boroughs. “Posts like Hakeem”, Skyzoo claims to drop "Olajuwon posts". Nice catch there. There is a subtle, relaxed tone to this song. Almost an end of the night feel. Verses about confidence and running the game. Nothing too special here, verse-wise.
– Closing the album with another slow sampled beat. “Third person flows so I don’t have to” – maybe that’s the whole theme of the album? This song songs a lot like a Fat Joe song – another late 90s rhymer whose struggle songs are much better than his “we made it” songs. There is a hunger to this song that I like. An “I am in the game, so here goes nothing” vibe. I can relate to that, not so much from rap, but from my own career.
15) Can I Live II
(Bonus Track w/ Memphis Bleek) – Very jazzy flow. “The percentage of those who understand is lower than the percentage that don’t” – is that a 5% reference? Not sure Memphis Bleek needs to be on this song. He sounds like the high pitched little puppy in the old Warner Brothers cartoons – “Hey Spike, how about we chase cats? Hey Spike, hey Spike.”.
Overall, there is a classical jazzy flow to the whole album. The musical tone of the whole album is fantastic. I loved DJ Premier’s beats on “Reasonable Doubt”, but then again, he is one of the best hip-hop producers ever. Every song sounds like a classic.
There is also an intelligence to Jay-Z’s verses that I like. They are above the gutter and the ghetto. Only “Regrets” has a tone of humbleness. That brings to mind sort of a Malcolm X vs Detroit Red drive to be better. Like if you talk better and carry yourself better, you will be better. The Sinatra style is also very apparent. Whereas Raekwon and Ghostface wrote hustler stories of slinging rocks on the corner as a metaphor for the rap game, Jay-Z shot for the stars. Unfortunately, too many rappers followed suit. And did so poorly.
I do think Jay-Z leans too heavy on materialist tropes. I would have liked to see more verbal dexterity such as “22 Two’s” and more rhymes about the actual streets than Columbian drug lords, ice, or cars. That disconnect is something I still have trouble getting beyond. And by meeting with world leaders and attempting to make money off the Occupy Movement
, Jay-Z has done little to bridge that gap.
Listening to Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” is like listening to Duke Ellington or Sinatra. It's hip-hop, but it has as much relation to hip-hop’s “CNN of the streets” as W.C. Handy
’s “St. Louis Blues” has to the blues of the Mississippi Delta or Muddy Waters’s Chicago blues. The root is still there, but they are vastly different.
This was definitely an interesting experiment. Now I understand Jay-Z a little better. And I better understand those he influenced as well. That’s a good thing.
And now I can buy Skyzoo’s “Ode to Reasonable Doubt
” and not feel weird.