Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Reasonable Cause to Dig Mafioso Rap
“You’re a writer?” she says, suddenly interested. “You write—like, books? I love romances and mysteries—“

“Actually,” I cut her sentence in mid-stream, “I write about pop culture—mostly about film and music—“

“Oooh! I love music—all kinds,” she parries, “except country and rap— especially rap. Some country I like, but I hate all rap.” She says it as if it were a treatise, a definitive statement on all things holy and right with the universe as we know it.

“Are you sure?” I reply, arching my eyebrow sarcastically as I launch into my patented retort. “How do you know? Have you heard ALL rap?”

This is the part I love, because I’ve heard it, with a few variations, so many times before, and it’s so predictable. “I—I don’t need to hear it,” she stammers, “I know it’s bad.” And that’s when I know she and I will not be doing lunch after all.

Americans love outlaws—we’ve romanticized them from Colonial days. There’s something universal about a solitary figure born in poverty, rising up against all odds, spending a stint in hell and emerging more powerful as a result. It’s not the American Dream—it’s the universal dream, and it stretches to our earliest literature. From Stone Age drawings to Beowulf to mythology to revolutions to cinema, the outcast made good is an inherent part of our thought process.

Given that, I find it strange we can embrace The Sopranos, The Godfather and even Scarface as high-minded allegories of the human condition, while dismissing gangsta rap as one of the first signs of the coming Apocalypse. It’s not that cut-and-dried simple. Like the crime movies it’s modeled after, the gangsta genre of rap can be broken down into several sub-genres, ranging from mindless, violent garbage to works that utilize the criminal underbelly as a metaphor for societal frustrations. The former celebrates the criminal lifestyle—the latter illustrates its consequences.

Jay-Z’s 1995 debut, Reasonable Doubt, recounted how Shawn Carter put his dubious background behind him to resurrect himself as the redoubtable godfather of mafioso rap, Jay-Z. It was an album full of bravado, and if not listened to carefully, could be construed to glorify the lives of ghetto drug dealers. In fact, it does the polar opposite. It chronicles the rise and fall of a kingpin (if only emotionally), and emerges as one of the best rock albums of all time. And well it should be considered as such—it took rap out of the ghetto, and established Jay-Z as a force with which to be reckoned.

The Classic Albums series DVD release of Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt doesn’t make any attempt to review the original album, nor does it try to romanticize or justify it. Instead, it delves into the thought processes that went into the making of the album. What emerges as a result is a documentary of how Shawn Carter shed his street hustler life to become Jay-Z, arguably the most important figure in contemporary hip-hop.

You always think of your first time as being your best time, which may be why Jay-Z chose Reasonable Doubt to be his contribution to the Classic Albums series. He certainly had his hustle down in those early days, since he was able to work with some major hip-hop producers, such as Clark Kent, Knowbody, Ski and Sean Kane. In interviews, they share how they created the sound of the album, and analyze how the contrast of satiny smooth orchestration and guttersnipe rhymes melded to advance the genre. Mary J. Blige and a sixteen year old Foxy Brown contributed vocals to the album, as well. Kanye West is also featured in concert snippets and interview segments.

There’s some live concert footage imbedded in the documentary, but it takes a back seat to the participants’ reminisces of how the streets of Brooklyn forged the theme of the album. The bonus features, however, include the original promo videos for “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, featuring Mary J. Blige’s haunting vocals, and “Ain’t No Nigga.” In which Foxy Brown plays a prominent role. The rest of the bonus features expand on the technical details of how the album was made.

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt is unlikely to alter the preconceptions of those who profess to “hate all rap”, since they’re never going to watch it anyway. For those interested in the sociological and historical origins of gangsta rap, however, this is a must-see. Admittedly, this is a musical genre that has been corrupted to the point that it’s become a sad joke for the most part. When Reasonable Doubt was released in 1995, though, it made a statement about the consequences of the criminal life. If individual songs are taken out of context, it could be viewed as a glorification of brutality. But like Scarface (which inspired it in many ways), Reasonable Doubt ultimately was a grim cautionary tale. This DVD offers a number of insights into the story, and provides a reference point for the origins of a musical idiom.