Life is timing. Yes, it's a worn out trope, but one that rings true in both life and art. Had crack not ravaged South Central Los Angeles, had brutal policing not become the norm, the five-man crew of NWA would have lacked the source material to pen 'Straight Outta Compton,' 'Gangsta, Gangsta' and 'Fuck tha Police.' A protracted gap in Rakim recordings offered up just enough space for Nas to establish a firm foothold in the hip-hop landscape and supplant Rakim as the genre's most heralded lyricist. A similar gap between releases by Nas and Notorious B.I.G. allowed drug-rapper-turned-pop-icon Jay Z to release and garner attention from his freshman album "Reasonable Doubt."
Arguably Jay Z's opus, "Reasonable Doubt" celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 25. Instagram posts and laudatory tweets hummed across the respective social networks. And in Baltimore, a young rapper, Lor Scoota, was attending the Touch the People, Pray For Peace in These Streets charity basketball game at Morgan State University.
Timing can be ironic, too. On the day that "Reasonable Doubt"—the album which allowed a younger Jay Z to leave the streets behind him —celebrated its 20th anniversary, Lor Scoota was gunned down. The young Baltimore rapper's life was erased in a hail of bullets at the corner of Harford and Moravia roads, just minutes after leaving the charity basketball game.
The reactions to Lor Scoota's death—a tweet from Meek Mill, words from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a story in the Washington Post—are normally reserved for more famous hip-hop artists who have been slain. Lor Scoota didn't have thousands of streams on Spotify, he hadn't made an SNL appearance or turned a Grammy performance into a political statement. What Lor Scoota, born Tyriece Watson, had was a connection to the streets that resonated through YouTube videos. His lyrics cut through the cacophony of tweets, video uploads, and IG posts that have become meat and drink for rappers who don't quite have a deal, but have a buzz among fans willing to dig past the first page on their streaming service or scour YouTube for music.
Lor Scoota captured Baltimore. And his death silenced one more voice to translate a broad segment of America—its poor, its disenfranchised—to a wider audience that of late finds itself preoccupied with the relationship-themed rhymes of a former television star. Lor Scoota's music was Baltimore. He was the American underclass. Scoota was a lens into Baltimore beyond the Inner Harbor, past Camden Yards and Canton, and outside Fells Point. Scoota made the city and the world see his home, its beauty and its flaws.
Unfortunate timing intervened. Scoota's frequent trips to Los Angeles and New York were rumored to be meetings with label executives. But June 25 came before a deal did. And a rap genius was silenced before he could bloom. His fans and the broader rap world are left with a question asked and left unanswered too often in hip-hop. What could Scoota have become? It's the same question we asked on March 9, 1997 when Notorious B.I.G. lay dead in an SUV pockmarked with bullets. The question we asked on Sept. 13, 1996, when Tupac succumbed to injuries suffered at the hands of a gunman on the Las Vegas Strip. The question we asked on Feb. 15, 1999 when Big L was shot and killed in Harlem.
But on the 20th anniversary of "Reasonable Doubt," the timing of Scoota's death felt even more eerie to me. Like Scoota, a young Jay Z made no distinction between art and life. He made no excuses for selling crack. Older, mogul Jay Z reflecting on his drug dealing told Charlie Rose in 2010 that the street life was so hard to escape because it felt so comfortable:
"What I was doing for so long I was still holding on to this tree [referring to dealing crack]. I was still afraid to let go because I was pretty successful at doing what I was doing... I knew I was going back to the street, I just knew it in my heart... I was thinking rap wasn't going to work out and I was going back so that wasn't almost like, to me it was a safety net."
"Reasonable Doubt" was born out of that internal struggle to leave a life that, despite its inherent dangers, felt safe to a younger Jay Z. The album was released at the apex of drug rap, on the heels of Raekwon's crack rap opus "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx," a 17-song confessional on being trapped in the street, which opens with the words: "I ain't trying to just sit on $100,000 and be a drug dealer the rest of my life." "Reasonable Doubt" came a full two years after Nas released "Illmatic," a short album—only 10 proper tracks on the record—but it served as a long-form socio-political essay on the Reagan Era. Jay Z's first album came two years after Notorious B.I.G. successfully blended dark humor, drug tales, and material aspiration on his first album "Ready to Die."
"Reasonable Doubt" had all the elements of the previous albums in the crack rap subgenre, but it had one element that marked both the lives of Jay Z and Scoota: Both were still knee-deep in the drug game as hip-hop fame drew close. "Reasonable Doubt" leaned on a single conceit: Jay Z was both dealer and addict; he sold dope and was addicted to the spoils of his business. He needed to escape. But exactly to what, and how would he leave the drug game behind?
And it's operating inside of this extended metaphor that Jay Z crafts both unapologetic tales of dope dealing—'Friend or Foe'—and introspective songs on the psychological toll of street life—'D'Evils.'
In April, I wrote this about Scoota in City Paper: "Lor Scoota doesn't have the luxury to explicitly denounce violence or the community. He is still surrounded by that violence, still navigating the community. His political statement is about the cost of survival, the need to stay close to your friends, the mental toll of repeatedly seeing the death on Instagram."
Scoota's biggest hit makes no apologies for its substance. To the contrary, 'Bird Flu' is about a drug dealer's aspirations. 'Bird Flu' is about a come up, moving from corner boy to kingpin, from selling $20 bags to kilograms. On the hook Scoota raps: "I'm tired of selling packs I think I need a bird or two."
In the economics and politics of the drug trade, the move is akin to going from an intern to CEO, except the path is obviously fraught with much more danger. Motivated by riches, Scoota lays out his goals in minimalist fashion. On the second verse, he raps:
"I got a hundred pills on me, on my way to hit this mark/I'm gonna keep on selling drugs, fuck a distribution law/I'm plugged in with all the plugs, they know I'm a trap star/Make something out of nothing, turn an ounce into a car."
When a 26-year-old Jay Z, walking a tightrope between the streets and music fame, sets out on his debut, he opens the 14-song album with 'Can't Knock the Hustle,' a duet with Mary J. Blige. The opening track serves as both introduction to his music career and fan base largely uninitiated in street life. Jay Z justifies his choices in the third verse:
"At my arraignment, screaming/All us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even/Thieving, as long as I'm breathing/Can't knock the way a nigga eating/fuck you even."
The line is a setup for the album. It's a case against the political and social climate that oppresses young black boys and makes drug dealing appear to be among only a handful of viable economic options.
Across the sprawl of "Reasonable Doubt," Jay Z weaves together both humor on 'Friend or Foe'—"Look, it's out of my hands/ And you getting money around here, it's not in the plans/ So hop your ass out of that van, head back to Kansas/ I'm sending niggas back up in campuses/ Chance is slimmer than that chick in Calvin Klein pants is"—and an acute sense of how the drug trade tears at the social fabric of his community on 'D'Evils': "Whoever said illegal was the easy way out couldn't understand/ The mechanics and the workings of the underworld, granted/ Nine to five is how you survive, I ain't trying to survive/ I'm tryna live it to the limit and love it a lot."
The themes and the rhymes themselves would inform contemporary trap music. Jay Z creates much of the source material in rhyme for rappers from Scoota to Pusha T to draw from. In one album, he becomes the archetype for street rappers, the anti-hero for the Scootas of the world to emulate.
Like Jay Z, Scoota would mine the source material for his music from his own life. He lived in the complicated space between Baltimore artistic celebrity and young black man with a troubled past. He was a crack dealer, according to police reports. He recorded public services announcements for 92Q calling for peace during the April 2015 uprising. He read to students about the legacy of Martin Luther King, and while rappers in Baltimore and beyond brandish weapons in their songs, Scoota publicly refused. Still, he was arrested at BWI for possession of a gun with its serial number filed down.
Even his death is widely believed to have been a targeted shooting. Almost two weeks later Lor Scoota's manager Trayvon Lee was gunned down in Druid Hill. After Scoota's death, Lee's brother, dirtbiker Chino Braxton, told the Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton that he planned to leave Baltimore, the same city that fueled the creativity of the artist who was likely his best chance to escape Charm City: "Crabs pull each other down the pot. That's what everybody do here," Braxton said. "Nobody wants to see us shine."
And it's in this space between art and criminality that Scoota's "Still N The Trenches" mixtapes and Jay Z's "Reasonable Doubt" flourished. But timing, the perversely perfect timing of what is believed to be a hitman's bullet, never allowed Scoota to cross the breach from the street to music industry.
I never got the chance to ask Lor Scoota if he was a fan of Jay Z. I never got the chance ask what he thought of the embedded rhyme couplets, the visceral descriptions of the street. I wish I could have asked Baltimore's trap rap star what he thought about the standard bearer for transforming street rhymes into riches and respectability. I mean peak Jay Z, the Jordan of rap, Michael hitting the winning shot in Game 6 of Finals against the Jazz, not the guy who raps too much about art in the way Jordan took too many shots in the final stanza of his career with the Wizards.
It's hard to believe that Scoota did not at least admire Jay Z—the hustle, the perseverance, and mostly because Jay Z made it. He made it as a street rapper, a guy who made party records, a crossover icon, but he never let his audience forget his street roots.
A month ago, Pusha T, the current impresario of gritty street rap, released a song with Jay Z, 'Drug Dealers Anonymous.' It's a four-minute confession, some of it embellished in the grand tradition of street rap. But mostly it's a "fuck you" to the mainstream.
"Bitch I been brackin' since the '80s/ Google me baby, you crazy/ '89 in London pull the Benz up/ Type it in, Google's your friend bruh/ 14-year drug dealer and still counting/ Who deserves the medal of freedom is my accountant/ He been hula hooping through loopholes, working around shit/ IRS should've had the townhouses surrounded."
It's the kind of Jay Z record that made those of us older than 35 fall in love with his music in the first place.
Lor Scoota could have made a 'Drug Dealers Anonymous.' He could have made a "Reasonable Doubt." But Baltimore got in the way. Timing betrayed Scoota and his potential, robbed a family of their loved one, and hip-hop and Baltimore of a voice.