Understand the reality of Shawn Carter before 1996: A career in hip-hop was his Plan B. Plan C didn’t exist. Since a teen, his Plan A was moving the devil’s pies––work from which he accrued the most experience. Ten years of climbing the “trap” ranks without a net found him a twenty-something year old owner of three potential life-changers: 1) An untaxed net worth in the six figures, 2) A single superior talent, and 3) One shot at escaping the inevitability of being buried by twelve jurors or six pallbearers. To beat the system, one hundred grand doesn’t hurt, but timing is everything.
“Time waits for no man/Can’t turn back the hands once it’s too late.”–Regrets
In the early nineties, reality rap became a hip-hop prerequisite for “hardcore” MCs. Perpetrating affluence from the plush interior of a convertible or behind a treasure chest of jewelry wasn’t as in vogue as it once was. That paper chase, those dreams of C.R.E.A.M, stood at the frontal lobe of hip-hop music adjoined by Malcolm X’s famous mantra: By Any Means Necessary. A healthy portion (or unhealthy, depending on your allegiance to people or culture) of rappers across the country were writing rhymes rooted in criminology (UGK, Geto Boys, Compton’s Most Wanted). It was a way of life, a religion almost (“There’s a war going on outside”). What distinguished Jay Z’s approach was the illegalities of those other MC’s were without concentration. B.I.G. claimed he had to “still tote gats strapped with infrared beams,” Mobb Deep boasted of “sticking up the stick up kids” and M.O.P (Mash Out Posse) wanted any opportunity to activate their acronym. But no other Northerner introduced themselves to the rap world as drug dealer first, rapper a distant second. Even Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, who gave us cinematic tales from their hustling history via Wu-Tang’s initial offerings and later solo efforts, spoke from the Pyrex perspective of purple-hearted war survivors. According to Carter, he was still three toes in the dope game while recording his debut. He wasn’t saying, “This is who I was.” Instead it was, “This is who I am.” Majority of the retired hustler-to-rappers claim trappin’ was their hustle. For Jay, moving weight was what he did. Rap was the hustle.
“I dabbled in crazy weight/Without rap, I was crazy straight.”–Dead Presidents
While the origins of trappin’ can be rewound to street pharmaceuticals, what has evolved into a music sub genre has always represented, culturally, considerably more. Essentially, the spirit of trappin’ lives in the impossible resolve required to survive as the often forgotten and abused brown American. The “majority” race spell lemonade from their lemons. African-Americans turn pig parts deemed unfit for Caucasian consumption into chitterlings. Not the safest option, but best when weighed against starvation. Trappin’ is historically viewed by those in and around the life as doing what’s gotta be done to see tomorrow. The biggest American lie is that if one accumulates enough tomorrows they’ll earn an American pie slice. None have been deprived of more cherry and blueberry pie à la mode, overtly and systematically, than African-Americans. Consequently, those void of option and education take their economic future into their own hands. So a teenage Shawn Carter choosing his life over yours or your family’s makes imperfect sense. Not the safest option, but best when weighed against starvation.
“We hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation.”–Can I Live
During a time when the stock of “keeping it real” (which often meant keeping it “gangster”) hovered at Microsoft levels, Shawn Carter supplied the rap game with what it lacked: a lyricist supreme reporting live from the narcotics trade. Reasonable Doubt didn’t only speak to and for drug dealers, it mainly spoke at them. Jay was less concerned with introducing himself as an MC, than he was with informing under lords that he was a peer. It’s why the album’s lead song is “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” Most received the title as Jay telling them not to judge him for hustling. Fact is, he was asking his equals not to knock him for trying to go legit.
“At my arraignment/screaming: 'All us blacks got is sports and entertainment.'” –Can’t Knock The Hustle
The arrival of Hova was a true nativity. He gifted insight on underworld nuances; spoke of heinous activities like murdering childhood friends or kidnapping their women with extraordinary wordplay and an emotionless – at times sarcastic – calm. Even when bragging, the future God MC flew at a higher altitude. He didn’t simply stunt with his jewelry, he noted that appraisals preceded his big purchases. He wouldn’t just floss hunnids, he’d spend it in ways other rappers weren’t. During that era, most rap money couldn’t swap out winter for May or keep an attorney on retainer. And when Mr. Carter wasn’t pushing the latest Lexus or bathing in cases of Cristal (before Cristal was cool), he kept it even realer, informing those coming of age that his cruel business came with regrets and paranoia. There was a high cost to not live dormant.
“I ain’t tryna survive/I’m tryna live it to the limit and love it a lot.”–D’Evils
Jay Z’s debut set the blueprint for a couple decades of hood luxe consumerism and cultural trendsetting, of which flirted with hypnosis. Reasonable Doubt was ahead of its time and expectedly went over many weaves and fitted caps. The language was coded. The lifestyle so hood rich, yet sophisticated. It wasn’t until Hov’s second album that fans realized his jewelry wasn’t silver, but instead platinum (more expensive than gold). That he wasn’t drinking beer––that flute contained Cristal (more expensive than Moët). By the late nineties, waving that gold bottle with the cursive logo from a wrist dripped in icy light grey ornamentation was the standard image of hip-hop success. Once the Roc-a-Fella CEO single-handedly dropped the value of 4.0 Range Rovers with a skit, he realized the weight of his marketing command. He told us to stop wearing Iceberg and the brand vanished. He pushed the pause button on the new millennium’s retro sports jersey craze. Then instructed us to put on a button up shirt. We did exactly as told. Jay’s influence wasn’t exclusive to music fans, either. He had a mirroring effect on his colleagues. Music artists––from the rappers purists respected to plaque-decorated singers––wanted to be Jigga. When it was revealed that he’d wrote rhymes without a pen since his first album (conditioned from being too busy hustling to document new rap lines), rappers exploded from booths everywhere claiming they too created strictly off of memory. Mr. Carter’s twenty years of cultural engineering is why you’ve consumed countless sips of the D’USSE nectar, and, if you aren’t already, will soon be a Tidal subscriber. Before one can fully understand the market muscle of Jay Z, they have to first appreciate that one Brooklyn rapper made the blue New York Yankees cap a global fashion item. A feat that not a single player in pinstripes was able to accomplish.
“We don’t have to talk no more in code when the phone rings/We own things.”–Feelin It
An essential responsibility attached to the occupation of D-Boy is recruitment. Dealers must constantly look for young, impressionable, needy workers to sustain their assembly line’s flow. It’s how “Coming of Age” was born. Jay took the act of a pusher putting on an aspirational hustler as metaphor to introduce the first artist of his new label Roc-A-Fella Records, 17-year-old Memphis Bleek, a young runner and Carter’s downstairs Marcy Projects neighbor. Hov’s adoption of former trappers-turned-rappers would continue for the next two decades––from Philly’s “Broad Street Bully” Beanie Sigel joining The Roc, to Def Jam’s President Carter signing Young Jeezy and Rick Ross. That 20-year-old metaphor over Mtume x Clark Kent helped gift hip-hop’s current generation new princes like Meek Mill (Roc Nation/MMG) and YG (CTE). Even more substantial, it orchestrated escape routes for the princes and their kings––all former felons.
“Nobody wanna be like Michael where I’m from/Just them niggas who bounce from a gun.”–Coming of Age
As Jay has evolved, the music has followed and vice versa. Today, trap rap is not as restricted to narcotic sales. It’s more of an energy, expressed through a specific sound that’s curated by premium producers like Mike Will Made It and Metro Boomin. But it still represents unbridled hustle and a middle finger to all that oppresses. All because a crack dealer from Brooklyn had one choice to make: die enormous or live globally enormous. All because an Invisible Man from Marcy had one trick shot to take: create a classic album that convinces people Jay Z is undoubtedly the best thing to ever imbue hip-hop culture. The album initially fell short. Twenty years later, there’s not a trap album that stands taller.
(Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)