More than 30 years into JAY-Z ’s career, his descriptors read like the rap Iron Man’s: billionaire, philanthropist, Beyoncé’s husband, hip hop icon. And yet, a term like “essayist” might be the most apt qualifier of all. Using hard-earned insight, a writerly eye for specifics and the argumentative skills of a lawyer, the 52-year-old has written songs — or essays — at the intersection of sociology and Godfather-esque cinematics, turning dope boy philosophies into proverbs and bits of introspection into existential affirmations. He shows off those abilities on “22 Two’s,” a timeless exercise in concision.
According to Ski Beatz, “22 Two’s’” began as a popular rap Hov would let loose in concert, specifically at Maria Davis’ Mad Wednesdays showcase in New York City. One day, Hov decided to turn the segment into a song, so he turned to Ski. Although Ski himself hated the beat, JAY selected it as the instrumental that would be used for the track. Laced with an alluring bamboo flute, a sample of John Kaizan Neptune’s “Blue Wind” and upbeat jazz percussion, the beat itself evokes craftiness and adventure, an appropriate soundtrack for Hova’s rap pyrotechnics.
Released on Hov’s 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt, the first verse for “22 Two’s” sees JAY unload a barrage of couplets, with the second bar in each one usually answering the question posed by the first. Over the course of 16 bars, Hov addresses the East Coast-West Coast rap war, the flaws of modern romance, street savviness and even Afrocentricity.
“Too many bitches wanna be ladies, so if you a ho/I’ma call you a ho, too many bitches are shady/Too many ladies give these niggas too many chances/Too many brothers wannabe lovers don’t know what romance is,” he spits toward the beginning of the verse. There’s some respectability politics that haven’t aged well in the age of Hot Girl Summers, but JAY-Z takes the step of criticizing would-be playboys, too, a testament to his instincts for addressing all sides of any given argument, even with limited space. As he says, “No question, JAY-Z got too many answers.”
Toward the end of verse 1, Hov dives into his customary machismo before letting loose a rare flash of wide-eyed idealism: “I been around this block too many times/Rocked too many rhymes, cocked too many nines, too/To all my brothers it ain’t too late to come together/’Cause too much Black and too much love, equal forever.”
Free-wheeling, yet tethered to a tight concept — he uses either to, two or too a combined 22 times in 16 bars — relentlessly street but hosted in a forum for poetry slams, “22 Two’s” is a quintessential glimpse at 90s East Coast rap. It’s also proof of JAY-Z’s skill as one of rap’s great think piece writers, a rhetorician capable of thoroughly dismantling or reinforcing an idea as soon as he introduces it. As an album, Reasonable Doubt plays out like an exhibition for arguments that can be anything from slow-brewing to quick-witted and immediate, with all of them being threaded by Mr. Carter’s conversational tone.
Fueled by an instrumental that could soundtrack a mafia flick, “Can I Live” explores the soul of a hustler with nuanced talks of trap logistics, themes of paranoia and the underlying motivations for drug barons like himself. “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant — that’s how we on it,” Hov raps, solidifying an immortal do-or-die aphorism in the process. Although it didn’t make the final cut on Reasonable Doubt — it was replaced by its sequel — the original “Dead Presidents” is powered by the same juxtapositions. For the second verse on the track, Hov details one inept hustler’s dissipating resolve while outlining the pitfalls of the criminal underworld.
“Niggas’ll coast in the SL but can’t post bail/Niggas’ll roast a L, but scared to throw your toast, well/I’m here to tell niggas it ain’t all swell/There’s heaven, then there’s hell, niggas/One day you’re cruisin’ in your 7, next day, you’re sweatin’, forgettin’ your lies/Alibis ain’t matchin’ up, bullshit catchin’ up/Hit with the RICO, they repo your vehicle/Everything was all good just a week ago,” he raps over a haunting sample from Lonnie Liston-Smith’s “A Garden of Piece.” Ski made the beat for this one, too.
You can find Hov’s penchant for methodical rhyme arguments throughout Reasonable Doubt, but they’re a staple of his catalog in general. On “Takeover,” he breaks down then-enemy Nas’ rap career with ruthless incision, providing an accurate composite of critical reception for the rapper’s albums after “Illmatic.” On “Blueprint 2” Hov disarms pro-Nas arguments in systematic fashion; “Is it ‘Oochie Wally’ or is it ‘One Mic’” is a classic online retort for a reason.
Now, Hov’s had some duds — the respectability politics of 2009’s “Bitches & Sisters” comes to mind — but more often than not, he’s been able to provide cogent arguments within the confines of rap songs. For 2010’s “Most Kings,” he dissects the tragic fate for those who hold positions of power, citing everyone from Michael Jackson to Caesar to make his point. On Jay Electronica’s 2020 track, “Flux Capacitor,” he addresses criticism he received for joining forces with the NFL, despite claims the league blackballed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Flaunting his customary knack for quippy commentary, JAY unfurls pointed bars that manage to be as witty as they are succinct.
“Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense/Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench/Did it one-handed like Odell handcuffed to a jail/I would’ve stayed on the sidelines if they could’ve tackled the shit themselves,” he spits on the track, a standout from Electronica’s A Written Testimony.
“Flux Capacitor,” “Most Kings,” and many more echo a Hov tradition that started with Reasonable Doubt, particularly on tracks like “22 Two’s.” In many ways, the track distills his rhyme technique into its simplest form: a cocktail of compare and contrast, humor and occasionally conflicting perspectives. Released over 25 years ago, “22 Two’s” is a potent example of someone who’s been too good for too long.