-By Kyle Rainville

I used to hear (actually, I still do) the bad reputation Jay has. A lot of people seem to dislike the guy and his music. Why though? Is it a problem with the music or the man himself? Is it jealousy? Is Jay-Z a sellout? Did he completely compromise his artistic integrity for money? Well for now, let’s not worry about that and let’s just talk about his first album.

Jay had been trying for years by ’96 to get a label to fund and release his debut. Time and time again though, he was turned down. So what does Jay do? He uses all the money he has and chips it in with Dame Dash to form Roc-A-Fella Records to release the album himself. Even for those who don’t like Jay, they’ve got to admit that that’s admirable.

So on this album, Jay is basically contributing to the resurgence of mid-90s mafioso rap. While many would say that Cuban Linx was mafioso, I kind of disagree. Yes, it definitely had elements and yes it inspired others to go on and do mafioso rap but Rae’s debut was mostly coke rap and gangsta rap steeped in the comical violence that signified many Wu-Tang albums.

So if Jay wasn’t doing something completely unique, why is this album so revered? Well, many of his detractors like to point out that this album did not make waves when it was released and is only looked as a “classic” now because of Jay’s current status. They love to point out how it sounded like every other record at the time. But it is special, despite what the “haters” like to say. The production is absolutely beautiful and it has several great choruses provided by soul-filled women. On Can’t Knock the Hustle, Mary J. and Jay have incredible chemistry. Jay introduces the flow that would help bring him to the top of the game. Not only was his flow immaculate, but he was clever with his lyrics and had a calm but determined delivery:

My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me
Tried to get a nut and he got a nut and what
Straight bananas; can a nigga see me
Got the US Open, advantage Jigga
Serve like Sampras, play fake rappers like a campus
Le Tigre, son you’re too eager
– “Can’t Knock the Hustle”

Throughout the album Jay will often “disguise” his bragging by relating it to the drug game and money. Jay often notes how long it took him to get to where he is and how he lives comfortably now. Many of the songs also include low key pianos or strings. So when someone says that this album has aged better than Illmatic, I’d agree with them. It’s not really fair though, as Nas’s debut was released 2 years before this and they were going for a gritty underground boom-bap sound while Jay was not.

Despite this, Jay also touches on the darker side of the drug game. On D’Evils, Jay talks about how evil has influenced his actions and evil as a power has actually eclipsed “good” and has overshadowed the ghettos with violence and hatred. He’ll even inject stories about the things he has done that he’s simply not proud of. It still amazes me how calm and confident Jay sounds on this. It’s the guy’s debut and he knew that this was a “make-it-or-break-it” situation so he obviously tried hard to make it as good as it could be. But at the same time, it doesn’t sound like he’s trying too hard, he sounds completely confident in his abilities and cool and collected in his delivery. Jay would use this persona to help shape the rest of his career.

So what about problems this album has? Well, there’s not a lot but there are a few. Ain’t No Nigga feels bouncy and out-of-place. It was an obvious reach towards the mainstream that was definitely successful at the time but in the long run, the album has suffered slightly for it. After Ain’t No Nigga, the songs take a slight dip in quality (possibly because there are a lot of features?) compared to the first part of the album. (save for Regrets) The songs aren’t bad, they just aren’t quite up to snuff with the first 8 tracks.

As a whole though, this album is a wonderful listen, and it’s easy to see why many consider this a classic album. Jay’s lyrics and delivery are at their peak here and he would try to branch out (both successfully and unsuccessfully) after this. Jay displays a wide range of emotions for a drug dealer, being knowledgeable and mature (Coming of Age), sad and regretful (Regrets), and paranoid (Friend or Foe), etc. So forget all the complaints you’ve heard about Jay. If you’re a hip-hop fan and you haven’t heard this album, go at and get it as soon as possible.

EDIT: After extended listens, I disagree with my original sentiments on the cons of this album. I actually really dig Ain’t No Nigga and I find Jay’s verses from that song comedic and a welcome break from the seriousness and bold-faced melancholy of the rest of the album. Foxy Brown is also really good, especially for her age. Is it weird that I think Foxy has a deeper voice than Jay? I also think Friend or Foe is one of Jay’s most underrated tracks and incredibly creative. Cashmere Thoughts is one of the most unsung tracks of the album but it’s incredibly strong as well. I love it’s smooth laid back beat.

Best Tracks: Can’t Knock the Hustle, D’evils, Can I Live, Regrets

9.6/10