This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.
In 1996, I was 5 going on 6 years old and playing a lot of Heavy D. The following two years would see an obsession with Master P and No Limit, before I finally heard “Can I Get A” and “Money Ain’t a Thang,” thus marking the beginning of my Jay Z obsession. To date, he is still my favorite rapper, ever. Of course, with Life and Times being the first Roc album I copped, I had to backtrack to fill in the blanks. But whether three years or 20 years removed, boy, does Reasonable Doubt hold up. Released in the early days of summer '96 on Jay Z's own Roc-A-Fella Records, the label he created with Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke after he couldn't secure a label deal anywhere else, the album sold modestly. It did enough to get Jay in the door and into the spotlight, but his later commercial success would drive the masses (much as it did my adolescent self) back to his origins and to realize just how deftly Jigga knocked it out of the park his first time at bat. So, the album may have had some famous guest appearances, but he still entered the game a heavy contender for best lyricist. Or, to have him modestly tell it on his most recent album: “Your best shit ain't better than my first shit.”
What a classic album, brazen in its casualness. This guy doesn’t even sound like he cares about rapping much, he’s just incidentally extremely good at it. “Jay Z who? The rapper?” Indeed. He’s become much more than the nigga on the boat since then, but in some ways he hasn’t changed at all. Twenty years is a long-ass time, and Jay himself even rapped (towards the tail end of that timespan), “People look at you strange, say 'you've changed'/As if you worked that hard to stay the same.”
Twenty years is also a long time to sustain any career, let alone a rap career, let alone a scenario where 90 percent of those years you were considered the GOAT. There's a lot of room for change, both in status and personal life over two decades. Look at Jay Z deeply enough though, and you'll realize all of his considerable two-decade differences are mostly just surface changes. At his core, he's the same brash, disarmingly confident boss, only now he's fulfilled his own prophecy. Which makes listening to a young Shawn rap about all the things he would do that much more potent. Is the wannabe young Scarface of Reasonable Doubt the same person as the aging Vito Corleone who hasn’t even released new music in almost three years? Pretty much, to be honest.