Album: Reasonable Doubt
Released: June 25, 1996
Time has a strange effect on how we see music. When Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z’s debut album dropped way back in 1996, it seemed doomed to obscurity. It wasn’t considered a terrible album, far from it. It received praise from some critics and scorn from others and while it did well on the charts it never stood out, either commercially or critically. Yet, ask hip-hop heads today and they will put Reasonable Doubt in the same bracket as legendary albums like Illmatic, Ready to Die and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It’s tempting to think that the praise heaped on this album now is simply a consequence of its creator’s meteoric rise to fame, but that would be to altogether ignore the fact that Reasonable Doubt features a side of Jay-Z that has arguably never been since. It certainly earns its place on the lists and not just because of who made it, but because it is a terrific album in its own right.
If it seems hard to remember a time when Jay-Z did not rap about fame and fortune, it’s probably because there’s never been such a point in time. Even on Reasonable Doubt, before he was a rapper of any repute, Young Hov already had the thirst in him. The difference between Jay-Z then and now is that back then, he still spoke about the journey to the top, a topic he would later abandon in favour of describing life at the top. This was who he was before he got what he wanted, before the fancy cars, the mansions and the superstar wife. The differences obviously don’t end there or this album would not hold the hallowed position it does – simply put, Reasonable Doubt is better. It is better than the braggadocio rap that became Jay-Z’s style of choice, it is better than the often directionless tone that has typified his more recent efforts. Fans can, will and should make cases for The Black Album or The Blueprint being his best work, but even Jay himself admits that his later albums have never boasted the level of lyrical dexterity that he displays on Reasonable Doubt. ‘Effortless’ is an adjective that is often used to describe the flows of hip-hop greats and while it certainly applies to this album as well, it fails to mention the supreme confidence that Jay-Z somehow still had long before he was selling out tickets to Madison Square Garden. The album is a move away from the street-level, ‘hardcore’ gangsta rap of the mid-90s. Rather, Jay-Z positions himself a step above it, overseeing the processes and enjoying the dividends, the perfect example of ‘Mafioso’ rap done perfectly. He tells tales of past exploits with pinpoint precision with bars filled with brilliant, layered wordplay and subtle, clever references especially on the more serious, heavy tracks like ‘D’Evils’ and ‘Can I Live?’. The following is a great example, from ‘D’Evils’
“Stop screaming, you know the demon said it’s best to die,
And even if Jehovah witness, I bet he’ll never testify”
Or from the same song:
“She said the taste of dollars was shitty so I fed her fifties
About his whereabouts I wasn’t convinced
I kept feeding her money ‘til her shit started to make sense”
The album also has some guest features but this where the album arguably loses more than it gains. The album’s most commercially successful single, ‘Ain’t No Nigga’ has gone on to become one of the most reviled songs in Jay-Z’s long discography – no necessarily because it’s a bad song per se, but because it breaks the mood of the album and turns a serious exploration of criminal morals in a rather bland, mindless section of pop rap. The Notorious B.I.G and Memphis Bleek both make significantly more successful appearances with the former especially sharing the mic memorably with his friend and protégé.
The album also benefits greatly from excellent production work from some of the genre’s most accomplished producers. Names like DJ Premier, Clark Kent and DJ Ski were already well known at the time, but stand now as legends. In many ways, the production defines this album as much as the vocals do though the two complement each other so well that it can be hard, and probably pointless, to decide which of the two contributes more. What stands out about the production is the emphasis on a lighter, more melodic sound. It evokes thoughts of a higher class and a higher status setting than the bass-heavy boom-bap of the time and meshes well with Jay-Z’s persona on the album: he’s sitting in fancy hotels remarking on the life from the outside. There is not a great deal of musical variety in the album’s sounds though what variety there is does allow some changes in the album’s mood. ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ for example, is upbeat and energetic whereas ‘Can I Live?’ or ‘Regrets’ a much more deliberate and slower paced.
Reasonable Doubt today, almost two decades after its release, is often mentioned in the same breath as some of the classics of the mid-90s. It is hardly uncommon to hear the album compared evenly or even favourably to other legendary projects like Illmatic, Ready to Die and 36 Chambers. The exact order among these albums and some notable others is subject to great debate amongst the fans but regardless of the order, the musical influence and cultural impact of these albums cannot be denied. Reasonable Doubt’s own legacy is still on display for the world to see – it launched the career of one of hip-hop’s greatest talents.
Dead Presidents II
|Can’t Knock The Hustle||Sean Cane||4.3|
|Politics As Usual||DJ Ski||4.1|
|Brooklyn’s Finest||Clark Kent||4.5|
|Dead Presidents II||DJ Ski||5.0|
|Feelin’ It||DJ Ski||5.0|
|22 Twos||DJ Ski||4.8|
|Can I Live?||Irv Gotti||5.0|
|Ain’t No Nigga||Big Jaz||3.0|
|Friend Or Foe||DJ Premier||3.5|
|Coming of Age||Clark Kent||4.0|
|Cashmere Thoughts||Clark Kent||4.5|
|Bring It On||DJ Premier||3.5|