Think of “Jay-Z” as an ink blot
If your first thought is “Beyonce’s husband,” “cheat,” “Lemonade,” or “New York Times interview,” this post is not for you.
If you’re thinking “’99 Problems’ is my JAM!” this post is not for you.
If you’re thinking “YAAAAAAS, I’M A JAY-Z STAN, TOO,” sorry. Not for you, either. 
Have we cleared the room?
This is for those who remember the Umlaut Era (Jäy-Z). The “Jigga-da-Jay-Z” Era. The cocky grin through the slightly tinted window of a ’95 gold Lexus era.
This December 4th, we celebrate When Young Hov Was Young.
The following four tracks represent peak moments in my early Jay-Z fandom. Lines and verses that sent a pre-teen SBG to the rewind button like “Wait. What did he just say?”
“D’evils” – Reasonable Doubt – 1996
Everything I love about Vintage Jay-Z. “We used to fight for building blocks. Now we fight for blocks with buildin’s that make a killin’” boasts economic prose (he does a lot with a little) and his observational approach to emotionally heavy themes; he’s in the story and standing outside it simultaneously. Then there’s an ever-present menace depicted through biting wit. “Thinkin’ back when we first learned to use rubbers/ He never learned/ so in turn/ I’m kidnappin’ his baby’s mother.”
“Young Gs” by Puff Daddy featuring Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. – No Way Out – 1997
A favorite among the Day One Jay-Z fan and one of the first Jay verses I memorized. On a track that is mostly Mafioso-style shit-talking, he reveals himself as an underappreciated thinker (“In fact, my thoughts don’t differ much from that of God body/ but it’s the R shotty, that got cats likening me to the mob John Gotti”) who would likely remain a mystery until his demise (“won’t be known until I’m gone/ and niggas study my bones”) Boy, was he wrong about that one.
“Like That” – Vol.2…Hard Knock Life – 1998
This one’s just fun. It’s where we first hear the infamous “I will not lose” motto. Here, he’s laid back and playful, but still sharp and quick-witted. The line “impregnate the world when I come through ya speakers” was thirteen-year-old SBG’s version of three flame emojis.
“Blackout” by DMX featuring Jay-Z and The LOX – Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood – 1998
Two words: Palpable. Arrogance. But we’ll get to that.
First: DMX and Jay-Z on a track make me ache for what could have been with the original Murder Inc. Second: at the end of ’98, these two were in full breakout star flourish; it was a joy to witness.
Now the verse. It features one of my favorite opening lines: “I’m a monster, I sleep whole winters, wake up and spit summers/ Ghetto nigga puttin’ up Will Smith numbers” and is peak chillingly rude Jay-Z (“chickens I’ve twisted, see the digits unlisted/ the beeper done changed/ you dead, bitch, the reaper done came”). This is opposed to the blatantly rude Jay-Z who would show up later on 1999’s “Big Pimpin’.”
If you’re jonesing for vintage Jay-Z (so you can impress your various timelines with knowledge of deep album cuts and guest verses), here are a couple places you can hang out today:
This Wakelet page (I don’t know what that is either, but click the link anyway) is a day one fan’s dream.
My Spotify playlist #skinnyblackjams: When Young Hov Was Young. No album cuts (gotta hit Tidal for those) but it’s a good selection of guest verses and soundtrack/mixtape appearances between 1995 – 2000.
Finally, if you’d like a #SafeSpace to discuss your favorite early era Jay-Z songs/lyrics away from the social media noise around his age, fatherhood, marriage, fidelity, and the #BeyHive (I’m a card-carrying member, but my Jay-Z fandom comes first), the comment section is open.
Happy December 4th.
 My Jay-Z fandom pre-dates the term “stan.” I prefer “Hov Geek.”