I’m probably about to lose my hip-hop writing credentials by typing these words, but I’ve never been a huge fan of JAY-Z.
I’ve always respected Jay as one of the most masterful lyricists in the history of the genre, but whenever it comes time for me to throw on some classics, he's never the first artist in rotation. In pondering my relationship with Jay’s music, however, I fondly recall a clear connection being forged in 2000, when my connection with hip-hop was just becoming solidified.
The new millennium was ushered in by iconic rap albums from Eminem (Marshall Mathers LP), OutKast (Stankonia) and Dead Prez (Let’s Get Free) but it was JAY-Z's severely underrated The Dynasty: Roc La Familia that would serve as my singular point of resonance across Jigga’s vast catalog.
While it started out as a squad album meant to bolster the stocks of Roc-a-Fella artists Memphis Bleek, Beanie Siegel, Amil and Freeway, The Dynasty is still technically considered a JAY-Z album, serving as the moment where I became familiar with Jay past the point of radio hits like “Big Pimpin’” and “Hard Knock Life.”
I was 12-years-old when The Dynasty fell into my lap, a Christmas gift from one of my family members. Considering Ma$e’s Harlem World was my first-ever hip-hop album, I was innately a fan of the blinged-out East Coast production of the late '90s and early 2000s, making The Dynasty the next logical step for my uninitiated ears.
Rather than working with storied collaborators, The Dynasty was, for many—myself included—an introduction to the sounds of rising producers like Just Blaze, Kanye West and Bink! Tracks like “Streets Is Talking,” “You, Me, Him And Her” and “1-900-Hustler” offered a soulful take on the sounds I had come to expect from hip-hop's then-East Coast soundscape, subconsciously setting me up to be ultra-receptive to the later sounds of Talib Kweli, Mos Def and more.
Lyrically, Hov and the rest of the Roc family perfectly tread the same line between near-fictional opulence and street-bred grit that Ma$e had previously introduced me to, doing so with such charisma and skill that my pre-adolescent brain could hardly keep up. While the rest of the world fell in love with “I Just Wanna Love U”—and rightfully so, that song is still a personal Jay favorite—I was fixated on memorizing the lyrics to Brooklyn bangers like “Stick 2 The Script” and “Squeeze First.”
The album booklet for The Dynasty contained the album’s credits but not the lyrics, a feature I had grown accustomed to and relied on in the years before Google and Genius changed lyric dissection forever. The puzzle provided by the lack of written lyrics inside the album’s front sleeve was compounded by the fact that I had been gifted the censored version of the album, making every other line a mini-game of Wheel of Fortune, using context clues to guess which four or five-letter word Jay and his Roc cohorts were viciously spitting.
Now that I think about it, JAY-Z provided my first instance of truly studying rap lyrics, rewinding tracks over and over again to make sure my recantations were 100% accurate.
The Dynasty also contains some of Jay’s most heartfelt verses to date. Before topping Forbes lists and marrying Beyoncé, Jay was still not that far removed from his past as an ex-drug-dealer with an absentee father. To this day, Jay’s verses on “This Can’t Be Life” and “Where Have You Been”—to say nothing of Beanie Sigel's breakdown at the end of his verse on the latter—are guaranteed to tug at my heartstrings, and offered a glimpse into rap’s multi-dimensional nature to a kid who was still more entranced by curse words than lyrical vulnerability.
While I doubt it will appear in very many Top 5 JAY-Z Album lists, The Dynasty was a hip-hop nexus for me at an age where I was discovering myself and my emotions as quickly as I was discovering new musical tastes and possibilities.
The Dynasty is lyrical, gritty, beautiful and indulgent all at once, descriptors I had no idea could be aimed towards hip-hop records at 12 years old.
I may not bump Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint with the same ceremonial importance as many of my peers, but throw on Roc La Familia and watch me drift into a whole other world.