There are very few artists who can match the potency of Jay-Z, the premiere music mogul, undoubted king, and undeniable rhyme master. Hova has rightly established himself as one of the legends of hip hop, and while he certainly made his name away from the mic, being Beyonce’s husband can have that effect on your career; it is in the studio that Jay really put his own spin on the rap game.
Unlike any other hip hop artists before him, the rapper made sure that his albums weren’t hit singles with a few fillers; they were bodies of work, pieces of art set to be discussed for decades. It was an ethos he established with his very first full-length release.
Announcing himself in 1996 with Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z has become the foreword in class. His rhymes are silky, visually engaging and underpinned by Hova’s natural flow, they are as happy to discuss the usual tropes of hip-hop (making money, getting girls and being a gangster on your block), but he’s also, especially in his later years, used his position to try and open the minds of his audience. Never afraid to take a creative leap, there’s no doubt that Jay-Z will be a legendary name in the rap game forevermore.
Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, the writing was on the wall for Jay at an early stage in his career. The rapper founded his label Roc-A-Fella in 1995 before he later released his debut LP a year later. It showed that while easily considered one of the greatest rappers of his generation, above all else, Jay was a businessman as well as an artist. In his albums, he gets to showcase both with a rare simplicity that few can match.
The old adage is that when an artist releases a debut album, it should be considered their life’s work. Everything before that first record, everything that the artist has experienced in the daily struggles of life, is encapsulated in its black plastic grooves. It usually makes for one of the most authentic and sincere moments of their canon.
For Jay, it’s one of the most visceral, slick and effortless pieces of art one could hope to stumble upon. Flourished with Jay’s undoubted charisma, he exudes a sense of calm and collected menace that other rappers have never matched. He also did all of this while providing some of the most searing rhymes ever seen, merging syllables, curating vivid imagery and, all in all, delivering one hell of an album.
There are incredible songs across the album. ‘Dead Presidents II’ may well be one of the rapper’s underrated gems. At the same time, album opener ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’, featuring Mary J Blige, noted Jay as the bridge between old school swagger and a new class of entrepreneurs determined to take the riches they were owed. It also sees Jay share a track with the Notorious B.I.G. for the classic ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’. It means the album is a perfectly balanced affair, providing a sincere view of Jay’s past and laying down the blueprint of his future rise to mogul status.
25 years later and the album acts as a reminder of how simple great hip hop can appear: a flowing rhythm, the odd flourishing feature and a set of authentic rhymes delivered with passion are all you need to make a great record.
When you sprinkle the unbridled charisma of Jay-Z over the top you have yourself a cocktail worthy of knocking out a generation and setting up a career full to the brim with successes.