I remember seeing the first of the "Classic Albums" DVDs popping up on store shelves. At the time, they seemed like cheap cash-in titles, released just to make money off of unsuspecting music fans. The bargain bin pricing certainly didn't help dissuade me from the impression that these were quickie knock-offs. It wasn't until a friend of mine sent me the Steely Dan entry that I discovered that these were actually a series of great documentaries that got firsthand access to the participants on each album. At first, the focus was on classic rock (hence the name "Classic Albums"), but the producers decided to step out of the rock milieu and chose world famous rapper Jay-Z as their next subject. Jay-Z, in turn, chose his debut record, Reasonable Doubt, as the subject for discussion.
Jay-Z was already a premiere name in the rap underground when he released his first album. And despite heavy competition by other high profile rappers, Reasonable Doubt made him the hottest new rap star on the scene. Since that time, he has become one of the world's most successful rappers, and his music reflected that. Looking back, part of what made Reasonable Doubt so noteworthy was you could feel Jay-Z's palpable hunger. He was hustling on the streets and he wanted to change that.
It's kind of a strange dichotomy, seeing Jay-Z, having realized his dream of fame and fortune, looking back on the album where he had none of it. One of his defining lyrical traits is his extreme confidence, often bordering on (and at times spilling into) sheer arrogance. He's surprisingly earnest in this documentary, clearly taking his time to really pull out the sources for his lyrics. It's clear the album still has an effect on him after all these years.
The rest of the commentators aren't as introspective. Almost every contributor to the album is on hand, but they're as likely to talk about how cool Jay-Z was at the time as they are about the music. The writer of New Jack City even pops up to sing Jay-Z's praises. Now, I know these Classic Album discs have a tendency to paint the artist in question as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it's strange when the subject himself is so subdued. However, backing up their claims is some excellent period concert footage.
I'll admit, Jay-Z isn't normally my cup of tea. But it's a testament to the generally high standards of this series that even though my tastes run to different areas, I still found this to be quite an engaging piece.