44. "Politics As Usual" (1996)
Reasonable Doubt is suffused with a mixture of regret and pride at Jay-Z's street exploits. The two conflicting emotions can be difficult to parse, which may have led some early critics to dismiss it as an above-average gangsta rap record upon its initial release. Produced by Ski Beatz, who flips a Stylistics sample and lends the track a smooth, melancholy tone, "Politics As Usual" epitomizes this quandary: Jay rhymes how he's "cursing the very God that brought this grief to be," but then shifts and says, "I'm trying to feel mink, nigga." "I remember even the reviews, when it first came out, 'This is gangsta, hustler persona.' I knew they didn't understand what was being said in the music," he told the BBC for its 2008 documentary series Classic Albums. While inner turmoil about the hustler's life has been a hallmark of hip-hop since the days of Ice-T, Jay's use of language elevates songs like "Politics As Usual," and justifies Barry Michael Cooper's assessment of him as "the Proust of the projects."