“I’m from Marcy, I’m varsity, chump. You’re JV!”
1996 was a year of dynasties, where the best of the best fulfilled the most burdensome of demands.
On the college hoops scene, Rick Pitinos team of Untouchables, one of the most brilliant offensive NCAA squads ever with Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker and Derek Anderson at the University of Kentucky re-established the Wildcats as a national power with their 76-67 win over Syracuse in the national championship game.
The Dallas Cowboys, in their eighth world championship appearance, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX to become the first NFL team to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers, who averaged 53 points per game while giving up only 15 and considered by many to be the greatest college football team of all time, obliterated the Florida Gators 62-24 in the national championship game behind the stellar play of quarterback Tommie Frazier and running back Lawrence Phillips.
The New York Yankees, with Derek Jeter, Paul ONeill, Bernie Williams, Wade Boggs, Mariano Duncan, Darryl Strawberry, Andy Pettite, Dwight Gooden, John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera, earned their 23rd championship by defeating the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
And the Chicago Bulls won 72 regular season games, beating the Seattle Supersonics in the Finals for their fourth NBA title in six years.
But in 1996 on the Hip Hop scene, in what was perhaps one of the most pivotal years in the genre, we witnessed the beginnings of a different kind of dynasty.
“It’s a lot of big money in my sentence.”
We lost the brilliance of Tupac in ’96 to the vicious cycle of senseless violence that plagues our community, in a hail of bullets in Las Vegas months after All Eyez On Me dropped, when thugs were learning about the power of forgiveness and change while crooning, “I ain’t mad at Cha.” It was a somber note to an exceptional year of musical excellence.
De La Souls Stakes is High flipped the script as they transitioned from their hilariously fun and abstract Plug-Tuning to thoughtfully and intelligently drilling down within the social construct.
Tribe dropped Beats, Rhymes and Life, The Fugees changed the game with The Score, OutKast’s ATLiens took the game into an entirely different chamber and The Roots fused dope lyricism and musicianship with strands of Jazz and soulful R&B on Illadelph Halflife.
Redman, Erik Sermon and Meth was on some, “Whetever, Man,” Mobb Deep was droppin’ gems on ’em, Ghostface was getting his Ironman on, Foxxy Brown was telling everybody how good the Ill Na Na was, Bone Thugs and Harmony gave Cleveland its first championship 20 years before Kyrie’s shot brought the city’s defeatist attitude to Tha Crossroads, and Pac’s posthumous Makaveli joint had cats barking, “Come with meeee“!
MC Lyte and Missy Elliott were Cold Rocking the Party, Dr. Dre stepped away from the Aftermath of Death Row, cats in the hood had a crush on Lil’ Kim before she looked like Jocelyn Wildenstein, Busta Rhymes blasted off as a solo artist with Woo Hah!!, and even Shaq dropped a gem while exhorting the young folks to get that legal money.
But we also saw corporate attempts to flood the market with poot-butt studio gangsters as companies tried to capitalize on the mass appeal of the genre and the cash cow that Hip Hop had become.
“Ain’t no stoppin’ the champagne from poppin’, the drawers from droppin’, the law from watchin’…”
And in the vacuum of the increasingly splintered industry, where it looked like pop radio was coming to take the game in a choke-hold, emerged one of the most significant albums and artists in the history of Rap Music: Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt.
The punctilious, painstaking diligence of his verbal gymnastics just didn’t make everyone pause for the cause, his wordplay immediately penetrated and influenced the great African-American tradition of beautifully bending the larger American vernacular.
Yes, we have the glorification of the American Gangster and ill-gotten gains propelling one to a much desired, better landscaped area code throughout the work. There’s some straight ghetto grime, crime and pain laced all up in there. But the power within its vivid sagacity is the hurt and introspection that the young, 20-something Jay Z is capable of communicating.
Looking back on its incandescence 20 years later, his yearnings, dreams and hopes from the album all seemed to come to fruition today.
His self-confidence, hustle and industriousness, with one leg still knee-deep in the crack game, is a coming of age story on par with the greatest of literary tales, like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land.
And like Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Jay emerges from Brooklyn’s brutality to find his voice, comfort and security in who he is. And even further, what his destiny is.
As Ralph Ellison says in Invisible Man, Jay’s exceptional lyrics explore the moral dilemmas wreaking havoc on his psyche, as he aches “…with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world.”
My man has been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked all the pots, emerging with a wisdom and drive beyond his years and circumstances.
“Time to separate the pros from the cons, the platinum from the bronze, that butter soft shit from that leather on the Fonz…a Chandon sipper from Ros n*****, huh? Brook-nam!
The density of his lyrics are utterly amazing on Reasonable Doubt, despite how relaxed and spontaneous they seem.
Outside of Brooklyn and New York City, Jay was a musical ambiguity at the time. Today, people erroneously think Reasonable Doubt set the charts on fire when it first dropped.
It didn’t, and it wasn’t until 1998’s Hard Knock Life that he became recognized on a larger scale for the force that he was exerting on not only Hip Hop, but music and pop culture as a whole.
On Can’t Knock the Hustle, he shows the expanse of his mental imagery. While most cats in Brooklyn at the time are drawing parallels of themselves in the street to NBA players like Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan, Jay exhibits a world of much more breadth when he says, “Straight Bananas! Can a N***** see me? Got the U.S. Open, advantage Jigga. Serve like Sampras…son, you’re too eager!”
I remember rewinding that joint over, like, “Yo! This cat just said he’s serving cats like Pete Sampras! He got the U.S. Open! Advantage Jigga!!!”
Brooklyn’s Finest, with Biggie, is like watching Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan get busy in the Dream Team backcourt. Dead Presidents II takes you on a cinematic, somber retelling of a street soldier’s struggle. Can I Live takes us through the hustler’s maturation as he transitions into manhood with the credo that he’d rather live enormous than die dormant.
“The Youth I used to be, soon to see a million. No more Big Willie, my game is grown, prefer you call me William.”
On Friend or Foe, he lets everybody know that they need to play on the outskirts of the game, because he’s running the show now.
And the beats that DJ Premier, Irv Gotti and Clark Kent laced D’Evils, Can I Live and Coming of Age with are stand- alone classic bangers in their own right as instrumentals stripped of the next-level rhyme flow.
One of my personal favorites is a cut that I never hear many people talk about, but Jay’s collab with Sauce Money and Jaz-O, with Fat Joe rocking the hook on Bring It On, gets my heart pumping every time.
And every time I hear Jaz-O say – “You suck pistol like pipe with the crystal, John Stockton couldn’t assist you!!! Convoys of Benz’s, like we following the U.N., what the F you doin’? Whatever, n*****, Farhvergnugen!!!” – my daughters cower in the back of the car because I’m acting like a dern fool behind the wheel.
Released 20 years ago today, Reasonable Doubt was Jay Z’s true blueprint: a smooth, rugged and hilariously solemn piece of work that stands among the greatest albums and musical accomplishments ever.