The Anniversary

The Dynasty: Roc La Familia Turns 20

“Please, repeat after me, it’s only one rule,” says Jay-Z. Then he slows his voice down, emphasizing every word, making sure you remember: “I. Will. Not. Lose.” He wasn’t playing. In the last months of 2000, Jay’s magisterial swagger was at its peak. Jay had walked away from a felony stabbing charge with probation. He’d rapped on Mariah Carey’s single “Heartbreaker” and, in the process, scored his first crossover chart-topper. His album Vol. 3… The Life And Times Of S. Carter had come out at the end of 1999, and it had still been dominating New York in summer 2000. At this point, Jay wasn’t going to let anyone knock him off — not even OutKast.

Jay-Z and OutKast had shared a release date before: September 29, 1998, the day that both Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and Aquemini entered the world. That time, Jay had easily outsold OutKast, though both acts did big business. This time, though, things were different. Jay was coming out with a victory-lap album — one that he’d planned to release as a Roc-A-Fella crew LP before the heads of Def Jam convinced him that he’d sell a whole lot more copies with his own name on the cover. OutKast were unleashing Stankonia, the shattered masterpiece that would mark the duo’s final ascent to immortality. This time, it was a lot closer, but Jay-Z still won that week-one battle.

The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, the Jay-Z album that turns 20 tomorrow, sold 558,000 copies in its first week, just enough to debut at #2. Stankonia sold 523,000 — still gold in a week, but not quite enough to dethrone Jay-Z. OutKast made the better album, and Stankonia ultimately sold more. There were rumors that Jay had gamed the system, filling warehouses with unsold CD copies of The Dynasty. If those stories are true, then that’s pure pop-chart chicanery. But it’s also a superstar using the system to his advantage — LeBron James putting his head down and barreling his way to the rim because he knows that nobody’s going to call the charge. Even if you resent it, you still have to admire it. When OutKast finally got around to releasing another album, Jay-Z was a guest.

When The Dynasty came out, it gained a bit of a rep for being a minor work. The thinking was that it wasn’t really a Jay-Z album; it was Jay putting his crew on and sharing his spotlight. Those charges are, to an extent, true. The Dynasty is Jay at his most magnanimous, trying to build a franchise by dishing out assists. But The Dynasty doesn’t deserve the footnote status that you might give something like D12’s Devil’s Night or the St. Lunatics’ Midwest Swing. It’s too good.

Part of that is just the strength of the Roc-A-Fella bench. Memphis Bleek is now notorious as Jay’s understudy and failed-project hypeman — the friend who stayed one hit away his whole career. But Bleek was a sturdy role-player with nice intensity and toughness. He never had Jay’s star quality, and he sounds better on posse cuts than he does on a solo track like “Holla,” but he generally makes the most of his spots. Then there’s Beanie Sigel, who is one of the best rappers of all time. All throughout the album, Sigel radiates menace and pathos, and his presence is enormous. On the Dynasty track “Streets Is Watching,” Sigel is still rapping when the beat runs, out and he catches himself a couple of seconds after the music stops. He even makes that sound cool: “Trade they man for some pies and a couple of things! Till the bull- ahh! Motherfuckers!”

Jay’s Roc-A-Fella team was expanding at the time, bringing in new talent. Eventually, that would become unsustainable. A couple of years later, Roc-A-Fella roster would grow to include MOP and Samantha Ronson and a significant percentage of the population of Philadelphia, and then it would shatter into a million pieces. But on The Dynasty, a new voice can still bulldoze through an make an impression. That’s what Sigel’s buddy Freeway does on his urgent, blustery, career-making “1-900-Hustler” verse: “First things first, watch what you say out your mouth when you talkin on the phone to husssstlers! Never play the house, think drought, keep heat in the couch when you sittin in the presence of cussssstomers!” Twenty years later, it’s insane to think that Freeway and Killer Mike both made their national-scene debuts with scene-stealing guest verses that came out on the same day. Freeway really needs his own Run The Jewels-style rebirth; that guy was incredible.

But whether or not he conceived it as a whole-crew showcase, The Dynasty is still Jay-Z’s show, and it’s not a weak spot in the man’s catalog. (Back in 2000, the man’s catalog simply didn’t have weak spots.) For one thing, it’s got “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Jay’s biggest solo hit at the time and still maybe the most straight-up fun song that the man has ever made. The beat is what I consider peak Neptunes: icily skeletal construction, deathlessly funky counter-rhythms, Pharrell Williams’ squeaky falsetto in all its unpolished glory. On a track like that, Jay gets loose and goofy, even admitting that his heartless-loverman shtick isn’t entirely real: “Stingy with dinero/ Might buy you Cris, but that about it/ Might light your wrist, but that about it/ Fuck it, I might wife you and buy you nice whips.” When “I Just Wanna Love You” would play in any public place in the fall of 2000, you and your friends would just start rapping the whole thing at each other. It was that kind of song.

But that song is the exception. For much of The Dynasty, Jay is in towering self-mythologization mode, and he’s got some lines on the album that you can feel in your bones. Sometimes, he gets portentous: “Never read the Qur’an or Islamic scriptures/ Only Psalms I read was on the arms of my n***as/ Tattooed, so I carry on like I’m nonreligious/ Clap whoever stand between Shawn and figures.” Sometimes, he lets you know that he has nothing to lose: “I seen my first murder in the hall, if you must know/ I lost my pops when I was 11… mmm, 12 years old.” Sometimes, he just drops a tossed-off line so vivid that it sticks with you: “I took trips with so much shit in the whip that if the cops pulled us over, the dog’d get sick.”

But Jay was changing. All throughout The Dynasty, there are moments of tenderness and sensitivity. The last verse on “Soon You’ll Understand” is Jay imagining himself in prison, writing a heartfelt letter of apology to his mother: “You tried to teach me better, but I refused to grow/ Goddamn, I ain’t the young man that you used to know.” On “Where Have You Been,” Jay bitterly lashes out at an absent father: “Wanted to drink Miller nips and smoke Newports just like you/ But you left me, now I’m going to court just like you.” (On that same track, Beanie Sigel gets downright tearful on the same subject: “Dog, you never taught me shit/ How to fight, ride a bike, fix a flat, none of that sorts of shit.”)

And then there’s “This Can’t Be Life,” the song where Jay gets reflective about how close he came to becoming a statistic: “At any given moment, Shawn could lose it, be on the news/ Iron cuffs, arms through it, or stuffed with embalming fluid.” That’s also the song where Scarface shows up, radiating wisdom and heaviness. Scarface famously recorded his verse immediately after learning that a friend’s son had died, and he puts every bit of feeling into the track: “Ain’t no bright side to losing life, but you can view it like this/ God’s got open hands, homie/ He in the midst of good company/ Who loves all and hates not one/ And one day, you gon’ be with your son.”

The beat on “This Can’t Be Life” — a disembodied pitched-up soul wail, a bubbling bassline, a soft drum shuffle, a melody that beamed innocence — is a thing of beauty. It came from Kanye West, the young Chicago producer who was getting his first shot to work with someone of Jay-Z’s stature. “This Can’t Be Life” is the only Kanye West track on The Dynasty. The album’s real production hero is Just Blaze, another beatmaker who’d only just entered Jay’s orbit. Just Blaze’s beats on “Stick 2 The Script” and “Intro” and “Streets Is Talking” and “Soon You’ll Understand” are hard and vivid and cinematic — new widescreen takes on the classic East Coast boom-bap that had always sounded like home to Jay. The same is true of the tracks made by Bink, another future Roc-A-Fella regular. In the two previous years, Jay had tackled Southern funk and crossover big-room R&B with aplomb. But on The Dynasty, we can hear Jay figuring out the fundamentals of a whole new style — one that would belong entirely to him and his crew. In the years ahead, the sounds made by Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Bink would play a huge role.

Not all of The Dynasty works, and the album isn’t as front-to-back strong as the albums Jay had released before it. Jay is absent from one song and mostly absent from another, and that’s not what you want on a Jay-Z album. He’s also clearly angry over his assault charge, and he vents all that rage on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” which I think is Jay’s first track with R. Kelly. This was two years before the child-porn charges, and the song is about Jay’s trials, not Kelly’s. Still, that one is a now a weird and uncomfortable listen. We’d have to get used to hearing Kelly talking about how innocent he was. There would be a whole lot of that soon after.

In the years that followed, Jay and Kelly would strike up a working relationship — making the “Fiesta” remix, releasing a couple of albums, and heading out on a co-headlining tour that ended when one of Jay’s friends pepper-sprayed Kelly mid-set. That whole Kelly alliance was a bad move. I would like to forget it, and I bet Jay would, too.

But that song doesn’t really spell out the legacy of The Dynasty. Instead, the album represents Jay at his peak, looking out over the landscape and starting to figure out a new place he can occupy. We can hear him getting more thoughtful and sensitive, rapping over samples that sound more comfortable. Less than a year later, Jay-Z would release The Blueprint. In a lot of ways, The Dynasty is just the sound of an artist figuring out something new. And it’s also Jay-Z letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that he will not lose.

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