I am a rap enthusiast. I started listening to it long before I understood any of the references. Back then, in the 90s, rap was raw - it was masterfully crafted lyrics rife with double entendres; it was heavy beats with funky samples; it was pure expression. It was the decade that spawned my favorite artist: Jay-Z - but not Jay-Z now, Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z. His debut album, my favorite album, the album I can listen to on repeat, is (agreed upon by many as) one of the best rap albums of all time. In 1996, after cofounding Rocafella Records, Sean Carter dropped "Reasonable Doubt," became Jay-Z, and began his ascent to the top, where he now resides.
The content of his LP is pretty much what you would expect: money, drugs, violence, and sex - it is the lyricy that made it go double platinum. In a review in the Source, Charlie Braxton notes that "what makes these tracks stand out is the slick way Jay-Z flips lyrics." Every one of his sixteen songs gives a jarring, yet artful description of the everyday struggle. His rhymes are somewhat eerie - so honest, so emotional: "in order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets."
"Regrets," and "D'Evils" are, in my opinion, two of the best songs ever written - they're onions. It took me years to peel back, and understand the layers. In an interview with Jay I saw years ago, he said that "Regrets" is the song that is closest to his heart; I think it is his most earnest moment:
As sure as this, Earth is turning, soul's burning/in search of higher learning, turning in every direction seeking direction/my mom's crying cause her insides are dying/her son's trying her patience, keeps her heart racing/a million beats a minute, I know I push you to your limit/but it's this game love, I'm caught up all in it
You can feel the turmoil, the pain.
But it is not straightforward. The lyrics are poetry: "As sure as this Earth is turning, soul's burning/in search of higher learning, turning in every direction, seeking direction" - the wordplay is incredible. You cannot digest the full song in one sitting; you have to listen again and again. That is the beauty of real rap.
My favorite song, "D'Evils," addresses the evils (get it?!) of living on the streets of Brooklyn. Jay tells it exactly how it is, "The closest of friends when we first started/But grew apart as the money grew and soon grew black-hearted;" he never glamourizes the life he had to live, "Whoever said illegal was the easy way out/Couldn't understand the mechanics/And the workings of the underworld, granted/Nine to five is how to survive, I ain't tryin to survive/I'm tryin to live it to the limit and love it a lot." There was no easy way out of Brooklyn, most kids could never afford for college, or be granted a scholarship. Working menial labor is the only option for some, but others - the very daring, intelligent and the very stupid, reckless - turn to sales in an effort to "live it to the limit."
The clever lyricy, raw content, and poetic flow of the rhymes coursing through this album have made it a classic. "Reasonable Doubt" was Jay-Z's masterpiece. None of the eleven-plus albums he has released in the subsequent seventeen years have surpassed, or even matched it. But, I think it is a natural occurrence. "Reasonable Doubt" was the sum of years of pain, countless hardships, and many losses. Most of the tracks are not even organized into segments with a hook to divide verses. They are unprocessed rhymes of raw emotion - they could never be played on the radio. And they could never be reproduced, duplicated, or forgotten.