As seen originally on Kevin Review’s Things last week…
I got the idea for this post (nay, series of posts) while jerking around on Spotify one afternoon. I have a playlist called “Mo Money Mo Problems” because that’s the name of the first song I put in there, way back when (mid-May ’12). The idea was for the playlist to contain all my favorite “old-school” rap and hip-hop tracks I grew up with. As this list expanded, I realized two things: that music was way (way) better back then and that I listen to an inordinate amount of hip-hop and rap for a white kid that grew up (post-4th grade) in as suburban an area (read: white) as is possible.
There’s always been this feeling, at least I’ve felt, that while it’s not outright a problem that I like rap, it’s not exactly for me. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I suppose it’s fine. I will say, I’ve always argued against this idea that the lyrical content of rap songs isn’t relatable for someone like myself and it’s really just about listening to what you enjoy. That said, I’m the same guy that will turn down “Shook Ones” from deafening to barely-audible-in-backseat if I’m driving through a city somewhere.
So, with this all in mind, I decided to review some classic albums. I won’t bore you with comments like, “Jigga’s hard flow melts over the pounding synths and rhythmic timing of the bridge.” Not only do we not know what that means, but you get nothing from it.
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt
I’ll say this, I reasonably doubt anyone could prove to me that this isn’t Shawn Carter’s best album. Ever. Limited in features, Reasonable Doubt runs just under an hour with 14 tracks. Of those, 13 are beyond listenable and 10 are classic. Let’s take a look at the tracklist.
- Can’t Knock the Hustle (featuring Mary J. Blige) – You want to talk about ingenuity, the opening shot from the album is the place to begin. Going in a direction no one could see coming, Jay-Z opens his debut album with a sampled conversation from Scarface. Rappers, prior to Reasonable Doubt, had been sampling Pretty Woman, Philadelphia, and Back to the Future almost exclusively. No rapper, then or since, has ever had the foresight to align him(or her)self with gangsters of any kind. Kudos, Shawn.
- Politics as Usual – Here we have Jay-Z flexing his political muscle, expressing joy over the impending campaign season (and ultimate victory) for incumbent President Bill Clinton. Jay-Z predicts Clinton won’t have much trouble gaining re-election, because hey, it’s “politics as usual”.
- Brooklyn’s Finest (featuring Notorious B.I.G.) – Truly a pairing of the two greats to ever come out of Brooklyn, Christopher Wallace and Shawn Carter. You know, if I told you I had two friends with those names, would you ever guess the two of them were the best rappers of all-time (or in the conversation?) What happened to names like Kanye West and Led Zeppelin?
- Dead Presidents II – There’s been great debate about this track. Is Jay-Z openly and arrogantly talking about assassinating our highest ranking political figure? Would he be so brazen as to openly talk that way about such a serious crime? If he’s not talking about assassination, what on Earth is he talking about? Which came first, the movie of the same name or the song? If this is Dead Presidents II, has he already killed a president and we just missed out on it? Did Jay-Z kill JFK? Does he own a DeLorean? Trust me folks, I’ve heard it all when it comes to this one. I’m here to set the record straight: the song is about money (Get it? You see, on the face of every piece of US currency is the face of a dead… president… Clear?)
- Feelin’ It (featuring Mecca) – In yet another bold, unprecedented move, Jay-Z dedicates an entire track to bragging about his financial status. Cars, women, sex symbol status, rap prowess… nothing is off limits in this bragadocious track. Also, I believe there are several lightly veiled references to marijuana, or Mary Jane.
- D’evils – Honestly, this song is some deep shit. Check it out.
- 22 Two’s – In yet another interesting spin on things, Jay-Z devotes a track to honor his favorite number (2) and the top 22 athletes in rhyming order who have (or will) wear them. Kyrie Irving, Alex English, Eddy Curry, Derek Jeter, etc. At one point he even rhymes Thabo Sefolosha and DeShawn Stevenson. Remarkable, but true.
- Can I Live – This song can honestly be described as a cry for help. Literally. Legend has it the song was recorded and laid down all while Jay-Z and producer Irv Gotti were being robbed at gun point.
- Ain’t No (Racial Epithet) (featuring Foxy Brown and Big Jaz) – Jay-Z and Foxy Brown trade verses on a track dedicated solely to alerting society to a real problem: The lack of African-American men in the National Hockey League.
- Friend or Foe and
- Coming of Age (featuring Memphis Bleek) – I wanted to group these tracks together because as a kid listening to this album I remember loving these tracks. Looking back, the meanings of these songs really went hand in hand with what I was going through at the time. I was arguing with a kid in my social studies class, Daniel Friedman, about whether or not he should get to lead the line for recess after lunch. My argument was that he got to all last marking period and that I was taller, he argued that he was smarter and that his last (and first) name came before mine in the dictionary. After several weeks of vicious dispute (we didn’t pick the other in gym dodgeball once the entire time), we ultimately grew up and agreed to go every other day. We came of age, not too long after his status as my friend was in doubt.
- Cashmere Thoughts – Jay-Z talks right off the top about how he “talks jewels and spits diamonds”, which I have to hope (for both his and his intestine’s sake) is hyperbole. Outside of that, I know my mom would love this song as he waxes poetic about that softest and smoothest of fabrics–cashmere. It should be noted here, the song was supposed to be called “Expounding on the Value of Linen” but the song’s producer Clark Kent nixed that immediately.
- Bring It On (featuring Sauce Money and Big Jaz) – This was the one song I didn’t like. Sorry, nothing cute here.
- Regrets – Here we find Jay-Z at his most introspective, thinking back on living with regrets. Among the musings: “Why did I think having Taco Bell for lunch before playing basketball would be a good idea?”, “Should I have named the album The Subpoena… or I Hold Myself in Contempt?”, “What am I going to say to people when they find out my first name isn’t Jay and my last name doesn’t start with a Z?”, “Have I ever met anyone with a last name starting with a Z?”
There you have it. An incredible album, from top to bottom, reviewed honestly. I remember my older brother buying the tape and sneaking away during Hebrew School to listen to it as often as I could (which was pretty often, considering I only went to Hebrew School once a week for 3 hours, but that’s neither here nor there). Jay-Z has had some pretty fantastic LPs since his debut, but as the saying goes, sometimes they save the best for first.
Or something like that. That can’t be right. I think it’s something about impressions? You get the point.