Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt was released in 1996 on the rapper’s then-newly co-founded independent label, Roc-A-Fella Records. Today the album is regarded as one of the best hip-hop albums ever created, and it helped Jay-Z gain early mainstream recognition thanks to features from Mary J. Blige and The Notorious B.I.G, and of course his own bars that kept people coming back for more.
The record contains a number off songs that became timeless hits, but perhaps the one that deserves the most recognition is “Can I Live,” which we will analyze in this post.
“Can I Live” is a defining song for Jay-Z. While on the surface it has to do with dealing drugs, the underlying message is a depiction of Jay-Z’s mindset as both an entrepreneur and a creative that has led him to international fame.
“Can I Live” Lyrics Meaning
To get to the core of Jay-Z’s message, and by extension his life philosophy, we must look at “Can I Live” on a thought-by-thought basis.
“Where we hustle out of a sense of, hopelessness / Sort of a desperation”
After shouting out Roc-A-Fella records, Jay-Z introduces his, and the other dealers’ reasons for being part of the game. The driving force is a hopeless feeling that this is their only way out of the hood.
“Through that desperation, we ‘come addicted”
This feeling that it’s their only way out causes them to become addicted to the hustle.
“Sorta like the fiends we accustomed to serving”
In a way, the dealers addicted to the hustle are the same as the “fiends,” or the people buying the drugs.
“But we feel we have nothing to lose / So we offer you, well, we offer our lives (right)”
Since they have nothing to lose, they are willing to put their lives on the line for the game. This makes them strong.
“What do you bring to the table?”
Jay-Z wants to know whether his opposition has anything unique that sets them apart from the competition.
“While I’m watching every n***a watching me closely”
Jay-Z notices the other drug dealers keeping a close eye on him.
“My shit is butter for the bread they wanna toast me”
His drugs(butter) are ideal for the addicts(bread) and his competitors(they) want to kill(toast) him.
“I keep my head, both of them where they supposed to be / Hoes’ll get you sidetracked then clap from close feet”
He keeps his mind in the game and he doesn’t sleep around. Women are not only distracting, he says, but also potentially dangerous to his business and even his life.
“I don’t sleep, I’m tired, I feel wired like Codeine, these days”
Jay-Z hustles so hard that he doesn’t get enough sleep. He’s tired, but lately he’s been on edge as if he’s been sipping Codeine (cough syrup with opiates).
“A brother gotta admire from four fiends away”
This line seems to speak to Jay-Z being at a high level of the hustle, perhaps a nod to the idea of six degrees of separation. He’s four fiends away from the people who admire him, almost like he’s insulated by several layers of dealers and addicts before you can even reach him at the top of the food chain.
“My pain wish it was quick to see, from selling ‘Caine”
He wishes that people who want to live his life could see the pain brought upon him from a life of selling cocaine. From the outside, it looks like a glamorous job, but Jay-Z explains it has taken a toll on him.
“Til brains was fried to a fricassée, can’t lie”
A fricassée is a dish where poultry or meat has been cut into pieces and stewed in a gravy or sauce.
“At the time it never bothered me, at the bar / Getting my thug on properly, my squad and me”
Selling cocaine didn’t bother him at first, he was hanging out with his friends and getting down at the bar.
“Lack of respect for authority, laughing hard / Happy to be escaping poverty, however brief”
More imagery of happy and good times brought upon by successfully selling lots of drugs. Laughing in the face of authority. However, Jay-Z knows it can’t last.
“I know this game got valleys and peaks, expectation for dips”
Jay-Z understand that the game can’t always be good times. He knows that there will be dips in the affluence.
“For precipitation we stack chips, hardly / the youth I used to be, soon to see a mill’in”
He plans for this by saving money for hard times. He’s not so young anymore, and he’s almost a millionaire. Apparently his strategy of “stacking chips” has been working out for him.
“No more, Big Willie my game has grown / Prefer you call me William”
Jay-Z uses a slang term here, “Big Willie” to represent a young gun who has gotten some money and confidence, and maybe thought he was tough. This is a playful reference to his younger self, perhaps from the “Show & Prove” days with Big Daddy Kane.
“Willie” is also a slang term for the male genital, and if someone is a “Big Willie” it means they are “swinging big d*ck,” or balling.
Jay-Z has graduated from this juvenile attitude into a more sophisticated version of a hustler, or “William.”
“Illin’ for revenues, Rayful Edmond like / Channel 7 news, ’round seven jewels, head dead on the mic”
Jay-Z compares himself to Rayful Edmond, an infamous drug lord who is frequently credited for introducing crack cocaine to Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. This he confirms in his 2011 autobiography, Decoded, which includes annotated Jay-Z lyrics.
“Forgetting all I ever knew, convenient amnesia / I suggest you call my lawyer, I know the procedure”
He explains that when he encounters the police, he conveniently forgets everything he knows and tells them to talk to his lawyer.
“Lock my body, can’t trap my mind, easily”
They may physically lock him up, but his mind will remain free.
“Explain why we adapt to crime / I’d rather die enormous than live dormant that’s how we on it”
His reasons for living the life of crime are simple. This is like Neil Young saying, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
“Live at the main event, I bet a trip to Maui on it / Presidential suites my residential for the weekend”
He knows that he will be successful, and proves it by booking a trip to stay in a fancy hotel in Maui.
“Confidentially speaking in codes since I sense you peeking”
Jay-Z knows that he is being watched, so he speaks in codes so his haters can’t understand him.
“The INXS rental, don’t be fooled my game is mental / We both out of town dog, what you trying to get into?”
He rented an Acura NSX for the weekend, and he runs into a hater along the way. They’re both on vacation, meaning they don’t have their usual connections, making this a possible one-on-one encounter.
“Viva, Las Vegas, see ya, later at the crap tables / Meet me by the one that starts a G up”
Next up, he goes to Vegas and shoots crap. According to Roc-A-Fella co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke, this lyric was inspired by an actual trip they took to Vegas in 1995, where they won $20,000 on a craps table that paid for the whole trip.
“This way no fraud Willie’s present gambling they re-up / And we can have a pleasant time, sipping margaritas”
All the way in Vegas, only his closest homies are with him. No wannabe gangsters, or fraud Willies around. They’re free to just enjoy themselves and sip margaritas.
“Can I live?”
The central theme of the song, is Jay-Z asking the existential question, to nobody in particular. Can he live? This could be directed at any number of people, from the police to the aforementioned Willies. He’s wondering if these people will stay out of his business and just let him live.
“My mind is infested, with sick thoughts that circle / Like a Lexus, if driven wrong it’s sure to hurt you”
Jay-Z compares his mind, filled with dangerous thoughts that he must discern, to a Lexus. A fast, powerful machine that could certainly hurt you if you aren’t careful.
“Dual level like duplexes, in unity”
A duplex is a split-level apartment. Jay-Z is saying that he is capable of operating on multiple levels.
“My crew and me commit atrocities like we got immunity”
They disregard authority and live like they can’t get in trouble.
“You guessed it, manifest it in tangible goods”
Spending their money on expensive things.
“Platinum Rolexed it, we don’t lease / We buy the whole car, as you should”
Such as a platinum Rolex and a brand new car. Bought, not leased, an important distinction.
“My confederation, dead a nation, explode on detonation”
This is a clever play on words, comparing his crew to the Confederacy during the Civil War, and how they tried to overthrow the nation. He is presenting them as powerful outlaws, powerful enough to overthrow an entire country.
Of course, the Confederate States of America are considered a “dead nation,” adding yet another layer to this excellent lyric.
“Overload the mind of a said patient”
Learning these things about Jay-Z and his crew is liable to blow your mind.
“When it boils to steam, it comes to it / We all fiends gotta do it, even righteous minds go through this”
Jay-Z says that he doesn’t have a choice but to live this lifestyle. The water in the pot has boiled to steam, suggesting an unstoppable force of heat. Even the most righteous, well-intentioned minds have to make difficult choices. Even the dealers themselves get hooked on the game.
“True this, the streets school us to spend our money foolish / Bond with jewelers and, watch for intruders”
Growing up in the streets, you don’t learn how to properly manage money. They teach you to hang around rich people, and distrust others.
“I stepped it up another level, meditated like a Buddhist”
Jay-Z took it upon himself to learn the ways of the game, and how not only to make money but to keep it. To do this, he looked inside himself and found the strength of the Buddha.
“Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous, dreams of / Getting cream let’s do this, it gets tedious”
He found some like-minded, high ranking individuals and got them on his team. These people have the same crazy dreams as he does, which is to make a ridiculous amount of money. All the hard work does take a toll.
“So I keep one eye open like, C-B-S, ya see me / Stressed right? Can I live?”
This is a reference to the CBS News logo, which is an eyeball. He’s always watching his back, and it gets stressful. He again asks, “Can I Live?”
“Can I Live” is not only a drug-dealing anthem. It’s also a portrait of the business mastermind that is Jay-Z, in his earliest days. This mindset has obviously since been applied to much more than just selling crack on the streets, and became a multi-million dollar music industry empire.
What do you think? Is this Jay-Z’s best song? Definitely my personal favorite. Leave a comment!