Not Fade Away: Jay Z’s Debut, ‘Reasonable Doubt,’ Turns 20

His aura of cool confidence differentiated him from everyone. He stood out. He seemed like the world actually was his.

By Rahman Ali Bugg 

Every once in awhile I go through a Jay Z retrospective moment. I’ll go back, listen to his early classics, and remember how Jay Hova has influenced my life in the twenty years since he debuted. That’s right, twenty. June 25 marked two decades since the release of his very first album, Reasonable Doubt.

Imagine, for a moment, a world without Reasonable Doubt. Imagine if DJ Clark Kent never convinced the ghetto rapper to think of hip-hop as a career; imagine if Sean Carter, the successful street hustler decided that hip-hop was a fun diversion, but that he was going to stay in the drug game. The kid had talent: he was gonna be great at whatever he set his mind to. And he’d proved that in the street: he didn’t need to rap to make money. He had money. And he wasn’t a kid, he was in his late twenties, relatively old to start a hip-hop career.

Let’s rewind back a bit further than Reasonable Doubt. A long long time ago, my first introduction to Jay Z’s talent was through his performances on Jaz O’s “Hawaiian Sophie” circa ‘89 and then in ‘94 on Original Concept’s “Can I Get Open.” The latter is, and will always be, a fave for Jay Z’s verse alone. But remember: hip-hop was crazy during that era; the music was great and coming from everywhere! That Jay Z dude was dope, but so were so many other artists!

A few years later I was a production assistant on one of Roc-A-Fella’s first music videos for Jay Z, “I Can’t Get With That.” I was looking for some more experience during my summer internship on Yo! MTV Raps, so the producer, Jac Benson II, set me up with Abdul Malik Abbot and Pierre Verna, who were producing and directing videos at the time and I found myself in Marcy Project with some bonafide filmmakers and some drug dealer dudes who were shooting a video. The video, I was told, was for that Jay Z dude from Original Concept. He was on set with DJ Clark Kent and other core Jay Z team members. Everyone seemed so much larger than life and here we were, in their hood! I knew the hood respected these guys. For that day, I was on their team, so I knew I would at least make it out of there unharmed. Which, I admit, was a concern.

The shoot was fun. I made lifelong friends, and bottom line, Jay was dope. From then on, I felt an emotional stake in his success. From then on, I kept an eye out for this dude.

On a personal level, the shoot was inspiring for me because (1) it solidified a belief that I belong here, in hip-hop. And (2) watching these guys working in front of, and behind, the camera opened up a world of possibilities for me, at least in my own mind. So I have to thank Jay and his team for that. These days, I’m behind the camera.

Years in the making, Reasonable Doubt was finally released in the summer of 1996 and was exactly what hip-hop needed. I knew what DJ Clark Kent knew: that this kid was next. His aura of cool confidence differentiated him from everyone. He stood out. He seemed like the world actually was his, and that was awesome for me to feel from someone so comfortable in their own skin and who looked and talked just like me. Biggie was out at the time also, so swag was on a trillion in the hood. We were really starting to feel ourselves back then and Jay had a lot to do with that. And as we know now, Reasonable Doubt was just the beginning.

The album transports me to my first summer after college graduation from Syracuse University. Life seemed filled with options, even though I still lived in the hood of Paterson, New Jersey. Riding around in the passenger side of my best friend Moe’s Honda Accord looking for girls to talk to, parties to dance at. We would freestyle, talk about mix tapes and music videos. Artists and songs fueled most of our conversations and informed our philosophies on life. I consider myself a connoisseur of hip-hop and a student of music with a specific interest in the psycho-social connections we make with and through music. That’s a very wordy nerdy way of saying, I love music and the way it makes the world dance. So I look at this album as my own virtual reality experience in the mind of a champ who said he was a champ before he even became one. Just like Ali.

The album opens with the loud heartbeat of someone being threatened by a Scarface soundalike. It sets you up for an dramatic mafioso-tinged journey into the mind of this New York MC’s MC who finally realized his musical vision. After this belligerent, slightly formulaic setup, the music comes and the voice announces itself — “Bounce,” Jay commands, calmly — and you’re in his world. Turn it up. It’s the song that could double as his mantra: “Can’t Knock the Hustle.”

The bass line. Mary’s voice. (No last name needed: there’s only one Mary in these streets) and then the MC steps in.

“Yo, I’m making short term goals when the weather folds/Just put away the leathers and put ice on the gold/Chilly with enough bail money to free a big willie/High stakes, I got more at stake than Philly.”

“Can’t Knock the Hustle,” announced to hip-hop that this guy was the real deal and a force to be reckoned with: so hood, so much style, so much flair. Twenty years later, every time I hear this song, it still makes me feel confident and inspired. Twenty years later, I am reminded how much Jay Z’s belief in himself fuels my belief in myself.

“You ain’t having it/Good me either/Let’s get together and make this whole world believe us.”

Mary and Jay. A perfect combination. Like the first time you had a good mix of Hennessy and Coke on ice. Hoodgood. Let’s go.

“Can’t Knock the Hustle” and the next song, “Politics As Usual,” were the blueprint (no pun intended) of the blended hip-hop/R&B sounds of that time. The difference between most who emulate this sound and Jay Hova (and a very select set of others) is the clarity he controls in his staccato, word-heavy flow, which does not compete with, or get buried by, the music. It’s a perfect symbiosis.

Jay established a way of speaking about the underworld hustling life that I somewhat understood and respected, being from hood of Paterson, although that way of life did not and does not speak to me. Yet, he spoke to me so clearly, and this was damn near all he talked about. It wasn’t so much what he was talking about; it was how he said it. I became a believer in myself, in my swag, in my attitude, and in my belonging. Puffy’s music at that time did the same, but that was more happy-go-lucky. This was urgent. Serious. Cool. Focused. Lyrical. Hard. I hate crack/drug dealing music! But the attraction of the voice, sound and swagger of this griot became a drug of choice for this hip-hop head.

Brooklyn’s Finest” was a once in a lifetime meeting between Jay and the Notorious B.I.G.. The rhymes are impeccable and witty; it felt like a freestyle session between two of Brooklyn’s finest, two of hip-hop’s greatest. This was an exhibition match between two kings who loved and admired each other. No swords were drawn. Go Brooklyn.

With “Dead Presidents,” the smooth-a– braggadocio continues and the Nas sample makes so much sense here. The message couldn’t be any clearer about what makes this man tick: money and the pursuit of happiness. He wanted things, and here he was showing and telling you about the work he was putting in to attain those things. You could close your eyes and see the world that Jay Z was envisioning for himself. I know I could.

“D’Evils,” produced by DJ Premier, is hip-hop at its purest. On this track Jay describes the hedonistic allure of street hustling vs. the safer, conservative choice; you know, getting a job. And for three and half minutes every time I play this record, “D’Evils” makes so much sense to me.

“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…I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti.” You may not agree with the sentiment, but trust: there are many who do.

As a “backpack” hip-hop fan, “22 Twos” is possibly my favorite track on the album. I recall a moment during the recording of Jay’s MTV Unplugged show, the show’s producer (same person who produced Yo! MTV Raps, by the way) asked me which song we should ask Jay to do as an extra song for the show…I said “22 2’s.” The producer asked Jay. Jay declined. I respected the decision. That song is no joke.

“Can I Live” is a sentiment that echoes in my spirit even today. The desire to be me and succeed on my own terms, by my own design, in a game that isn’t necessarily my own – by any means necessary, “Ch-Ch-Chyeah!” It’s a deadly but calm exaltation of himself, his team, his journey, his success and his relentless pursuit of it.

Aint No N—-” is fun and danceable; it’s a club record. Lyrically, it’s a very raw street jam that featured a formidable female counterpart in Foxy Brown. Their back and forth easily and respectfully reminds me of the great musical pairings like Marvin & Tammi, Rick James & Tina Marie, Sonny & Cher. Foxy kills it and doesn’t come off as an afterthought, but a formidable Bonnie to Jay’s Clyde. Pre-Queen Bey, of course!

Foxy goes syllable for syllable with Jay; she stands side by side with him on this round, not in front or behind: Jay and Fox were/are magic. Untouchable. This is a record that stands the test of time.

On “Coming of Age,” Memphis Bleek introduces himself with hunger, urgency and a desire for all that Jay Z has, but in the most loyal “little brother” way possible. This tale of the mentor/mentee relationship is the kind of street story that feels foreboding as much as it does heartwarming. There are only two ways out of the drug game and this youngster is going to follow the OG to one of those two places. Just like the best movies, the ride is compelling and believable.

Like the other tracks with featured guests on Reasonable Doubt, “Coming of Age” displayed Jay’s knack in choosing talent to work with. Bleek has always remained a tight part of Jay’s inner circle despite his many storied beefs and falling outs over the years.

“Cashmere Thoughts,” has wordplay that is Wu-Tang-esque; Ghostdini-esque even. Bold. Complex. Belligerent. Each line warrants a rewind. And please, please look up the lyrics online, my friends, and try to recite this. Trust me, you will give it up as well.

While the ideas and execution on Reasonable Doubt are far from unique, as a whole the album took the best of where hip-hop was in 1996 and crystalized it. For all intents and purposes, millennials are children of hip-hop as taught by a handful of elite educators, and Jay Z is on the board of directors.

Reasonable Doubt is an inspired brilliant crafting of a debut album. It holds up to any other debut, in any genre. The tracks are ordered with clear intention and the guest appearances are never wasted: each is well-chosen and well-produced. The skits are minimalist and well-placed.

All of the hip-hop artists and albums that followed would be hard pressed to achieve the level of bar-setting that Jay hit here. Jay had no doubt he deserved the throne that he would soon inherit; this album is a testament to that feeling of self-worth that he passed on to his worldwide legions of fans and followers, myself included.

So let’s review. There would be no hip-hop as we know it today without this titanic contribution from Sean Carter. Twenty years later, Reasonable Doubt stands as one of the great albums of his legendary career and of the era, and likely will in twenty more, and beyond that. Ch-ch-yeah!

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