I am probably the last person who should be reviewing this album. A white man who was born in (and still lives in) a rural area (albeit a different one, now), I wouldn't know "street" if it threatened me with an automatic pistol held sideways. Yet, somehow, the rhymes of Jay-Z speak to me, especially those contained in his acclaimed debut,
Soon after the release of
Reasonable Doubt, shouts of "best rapper alive" (a title which Jay-Z, in true hip-hop fashion, has accepted and perpetuated) began to fill the airwaves, especially after the death of the only two other real contenders:
Tupac Shakur and
The Notorious B.I.G. (Ironically, Biggie appears with Jigga on
Reasonable Doubt's "Brooklyn's Finest," offering rap fans their only chance at hearing the two together.)
His preferred "hustler" persona -- presumably based on his youthful street life (and his brushes with the law, as portrayed to public acclaim in
The Blueprint's smash hit "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" -- also made him more acceptable to the mainstream (i.e., "white") audiences through its preference of living by one's wits instead of by the gun (as in the popular "thug" mentality, seemingly the only alternative). This, surprisingly, allowed him to retain urban credibility -- becoming a sort of role model in the process -- in spite of such obvious bids for pop success as the title track of
Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, which uses the popular
Annie showtune as a backdrop for Jay's storytelling. It is easy to attribute this success to his likeability due to his easy charisma and undeniable confidence (displayed to great effect within his audience rapport on
Unplugged), something that is hard not to find appealing.
However, there is more to this wordsmith than charm; he has the chops to go along with it. His alleged "freestyling" on "22 twos" notwithstanding, his easygoing lyrical style stays firm while inserting enough humor to lighten the mood, allowing fans to involve themselves in the story (however embellished) of Jay-Z's life, or to simply listen as his inimitable rhythmic pattern flows over them. Adding to this gloss is the fact that Jay has always used the top producers of the day (often before they were the top producers of the day), making the beats and melodies often just as compelling as the rhymes that accompany them, and assuring his status on radio.
Reasonable Doubt the crossover potential was high, but soon after this debut, Jay-Z's nurturing of his image in pursuit of popular success began to outweigh his writing of introspective rhymes. Once he hit it big -- and he did immediately -- he became too self-conscious in his success to be able to ever again open himself so freely on record. Not even
The Blueprint -- considered by many to be one of his best -- contains the level of honesty present in this album, making
Reasonable Doubt the closest to a portrait of the true Jay-Z that we will ever get (assuming you believe the retirement rumors that surrounded the release of
The Black Album), and about that I have no
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