How many chains can you dole out in 66 minutes? Fifteen years ago today, Roc-A-Fella Records issued The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. I say “issued” because the album was first intended to be a label compilation, a chance to showcase Amil, Memphis Bleek, and other rappers who had been plucked to bolster Jay Z’s then-shaky rep as team leader. Dame Dash and Biggs Burke rightly believed that the record would sell more if it was billed as a Jay album, so it was reconfigured as a solo effort that just happened to be heavy on features.
It should have been an afterthought, and to many critics, it would be, dwarfed when Jay smartened up, chopped up soul, and bared his own on The Blueprint a year later. But The Dynasty is an engrossing record, a snapshot of Jay at his creative peak, before Bush, before he cribbed the whisper from Young Chris, and it’s time for it to receive the attention it deserves.
The Dynasty's "Intro” is one of Jay’s most virtuosic performances: he doesn’t start rapping til a minute and a half in, but when he does, he’s Stevie Wonder with beads under the doo-rag, with a darkened liver and spotty scripture knowledge. It’s anthemic, and flexible, the kind of song you can play before a basketball game or a drug test. It gives the album high stakes, the kind that lawyers gave to Vol. 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter and The Blueprint, the kind retirement gave to The Black Album.
But on The Dynasty, Jay was still just a crook with a record deal, taunting middle America with oversized throwback jerseys and formidable Soundscan numbers. The opening three-song run posits Jay as one of the biggest rappers in the world—neither DMX nor Juvenile could wrestle the spotlight back. “Change the Game" lent shine to longtime protégé Memphis Bleek, Philadelphia street rap savant Beanie Sigel, and the late Static Major, who would later star posthumously on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” Jay opens and closes the song, complete with lyrics that may or may not have been holdovers from Vol. 3 (“Fourth album, still Jay, still spittin’ that real shit”). But when he wraps up with the defiant “I. WILL. NOT. LOSE.,” a mantra that would figure prominently into his battle with Nas, you believe it.
Instead of another branding-oriented posse cut, “Change the Game” gives way to the Neptunes-produced “I Just Wanna Love You (Give it 2 Me).” You know this song. You’ve seen the video, where Jay rents a photo booth and Dame pretends he doesn’t need to wear a shirt when he’s photographed. But The Dynasty isn’t a mix CD that thrives on that intro and the hit single, meant to be stripped for parts and repurposed in playlists from here to eternity. The deep cuts are positively vital.
On "Last Call," the outro of Kanye West's debut album The College Dropout, the Chicago rapper/producer talks about catching his break with “This Can’t Be Life,” the Harold Melvin-sampling beat that served as his introduction at Roc-A-Fella. ("I tracked the beat and I got to meet Jay-Z, and he said, 'Oh you a real soulful dude.'") In addition to a game-changing Kanye production, “This Can’t Be Life” features one of Beanie Sigel’s most affecting verses (“Shit, I know that I’mma see ‘em when I leave, dawg”) and a Scarface at his most tear-jerkingly honest. Face's verse recounts the process of writing the song: he planned to write about his own tribulations, but he was derailed by the news that one of his friends had lost his child and decides his friend’s story is the one worth telling. The engine of Face’s music has always been an intimate understanding of right and wrong, even when those moral codes were at odds with his own life. So to hear him walking through an unqualified tragedy, one that no involved parties deserved by any measure, is heartbreaking like few passages in music.
Scarface's cut isn't The Dynasty's only moment of dead-eyed realism. There's also album closer “Where Have You Been?,” where Jay and Beans take their fathers to task. There’s no resolution, no tight wrap-up. Jay’s “We doin’ real good, we don’t miss you now” is as bitter as you might imagine, but it isn’t quite convincing. And on “So You’ll Understand,” Hov’s “And in my mind I really want you to be my wife forever” sound more desperate than it does sincere. In the third verse, he raps, “Dear Ma, I’m in the cell, lonely as hell/ Writing this scribe, thinking ‘bout how you must feel inside/ You tried to teach me better, but I refused to grow/ God damn, I ain’t the young man that you used to know.”
The Dynasty is more than just a would-be classic Jay album hampered by crew love and weed carriers. The sidemen carry their weight. On “1-900-Hustler,” Hov, Bleek, and Beanie Sigel offer helpful tips for up-and-coming drug dealers. As vital as Jay’s advice is, though, Bleek’s “Listen, shorty, you wanna roll? Just give me the word/ I ain’t got time for a sentence, all that shit is absurd” makes for one of few moments where Bleek the protégé outpaces Jay, the mentor. Similarly, “The R.O.C.” belongs to Beanie Sigel, as does “Streets Is Talking,” where the State Property vet raps, “The streets is not only watching, but they talking now? / Shit, they got me circling the block before I’m parking now.”
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia showcases one of the world’s best rappers working toward the height of his abilities as his industry shifts around him. A year later, Jay would grab critics by the cerebellum and taunting his biggest foe (as well as remembering the time he lost 92 bricks), but this album is a necessary artifact of the artist starting to assemble his résumé for the job of Best Rapper Alive.