Story by Ralph Bristout & Rob Hansen
Within almost ever gangster flick, whether it be "Scarface," "The Godfather," or "New Jack City," the story of the protagonist's (or antagonist, depending on the viewer) rise to power serves as the caveat. In the Brian de Palma-directed crime saga "Scarface," it was Tony Montana's climb from grubby Cuban hitman to greed-driven drug kingpin. In "New Jack City," it was the rise of Nino Brown from nickel and dime hustler to callous crack capo. And each of these films drew similar endings, as the bad guy hardly ever makes it past the credits with his freedom or life in tact. Somehow, Brooklyn-bred hustler poster boy Shawn "Jay Z" Carter escaped the cliche and in 1996 articulated a new voice for the quote-unquote, "bad guy."
While Jay Z's post Reasonable Doubt career can get often compared to the crime drama Breaking Bad, be clear that was never a decline. Sure there were bumps in the road and and he may have been perceived as the villain, but at the end of the day, and since day one, Mr. Carter has always been in it to win it. He didn't have to talk about personal matters like the relationship between his parents, instead on RD, the first official studio outing within his two decade spanning career, got the story of a man already on the path to success and showed no signs of slowing down.
The concept behind the album wasn't anything new. The gangster, Mafioso rap theme had already been written by the likes of Kool G Rap, MF Grimm, Raekwon, among others. However, what he did different compared to his fellow cast of street authors was rewrite the script. Bare, naked, and honest, Jay told a story that lifted the emotions the comes from within running around the underworld and its consequences. He didn't bask in the glory of being admired from four fiends away, but spoke from the angst and existentialism of the hustler — and did so from both sides of the coin. With that said, look no further than the most important line on "Dead Presidents": "I'm here to tell nggas it ain't all swell / There's heaven, and then there's hell nggas." Reasonable Doubt gave a scope into a conscious street hustler’s mentality, one who was smart enough to never get caught, but also one who also weighed down by the duality of dying dormant or living enormous.
Guys like Kool G Rap and Raekwon did finesse the Mafioso genre, but Jay's take depicted a romance with the streets, the money, the crime, and obviously the women. In addition, he gambled on the subject of the evils that are ready for consumption on a day-to-day basis. He masterfully represented life as young man with master plans of extending his reach beyond his Brooklyn backdrop and had the confidence to execute efficiently.
In a prophetic way, Jay knew he was destined for greatness. He was completely self aware of the life he was leading and hustled the typical hustler's story into a more fruitful career. 20 years later, you still can't knock the hustle.