In the pantheon of street-cultural gods, the hustler is the bejeweled strategist, a ghetto politician who moves with the money and mommies — the cat who can hang with the thugs, high rollers, Los Angeles Bloods and Brooklyn gods with equal grace. And Jay-Z is his pop personification. Outside of Iceberg Slim, no one has offered a more detailed portrait of the hustler as a young man.
Over the last four albums of his reign, Jay-Z has offered crime-born insights edged with a razor awareness of not only the dangers and angles of the streets but also the consequences of his actions — on himself, his family and his community. For every glamorous “Big Pimpin,” there is a document of his fear and loathing like “Streets Is Watching.” In return for his crimes, he gave us a window into the process of his evolution from hustler to pop phenom — all the while keeping count of his progress in diamonds, cars and bottles of Cristal.
In his latest offering, the strangely titled The Dynasty Roc La Familia (2000- ), Jay settles into a more natural role: that of the hustler-teacher. Sensing correctly that bling fatigue has set in, Jay steps away from the flash and floss of Volume 1, 2 and 3 and focuses on more weighty subject matter. La Familia is not without its pimping and posturing (“Get Your Mind Right Mami,” “Parking Lot Pimpin'”), but it is much more about family. On track after track, Jay confronts the new, unfamiliar demands of being a father figure with the same determined egoism and intelligence that he used while hustling in the streets of Brooklyn. “Soon You’ll Understand” finds Jay having to confront a young girl’s tears instead of rival drug dealers and FBI surveillance. There are unanswered questions and unresolved emotions. And throughout, Jay returns to a core theme. In an offhand moment, Jay calls to the father he hardly knew: “But I ain’t mad at you, Dad/Holla at your lad.”
The production is as reflective as his lyrics: pulled back, less frenetic and more full-bodied than on his previous album, Volume 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter. La Familia is closer, in many ways, to his seminal 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt, and his pre-Timbaland days. Dynasty is Jay-Z working back toward his roots musically, all the while creating a solid foundation for the next generation.
Jay-Z sought out new talent like Rick Rock and the Neptunes to give the entire work a just-left-of-pop feel. The meat of the album — “Stick 2 the Script,” “The R.O.C.” and “Holla” — are slightly abstract and cinematic cuts that are rubbed up against such straight-out pop fare as “Parking Lot Pimpin’.” Where Volume 3 was scatter-dash, Dynasty rocks smoothly between the club bump of the Neptunes’ “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” and the more introspective material of the album’s best track, “This Can’t Be Life.”
Often, Jay stays in the background, spitting a scant verse or two and giving more of the spotlight to his proteges Amil, Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel. Beanie and Memphis, for their parts, continue to find their voices and play their roles: Memphis as thug celebrant, Beanie as street-wary preacher reminiscent of a young KRS-One. The two become representatives of Jay’s own dual nature: half floss-king still thugging it, half street teacher offering warnings and experience to those who have ears to hear.
Jay’s tendency to associate with Southern and West Coast cats reveals not only his market savvy but also his recognition of where the current heat in hip-hop resides. Interestingly, it’s Houston’s Scarface who has the most poignant moment on the album: On “This Can’t Be Life,” he emotionally devotes his verse to mourning with a friend for a dead child: “I could have talked about my hard times on this song/But heaven knows I would have been wrong/It wouldn’t be right/This can’t be us/This can’t be life.” And that’s something, considering the powerful final track, “Where Have You Been,” on which Jay and Beans recount in full technicolor the pain and rage they have about their absentee fathers.
As he continues to develop, Jay’s turn to family-building adds another dimension to an already intriguing figure. The hustler now seeks to become the father he never had. He articulates new struggles with love, and defines his next levels of success in familial rather than financial terms. Perhaps this change in emphasis by hip-hop’s most credible voice suggests a new reorientation in the culture’s priorities as well. We can only hope.