Jay Z’s debut album, which dropped twenty years ago today, isn’t simply one of the best rap albums of all time, but represents the dawning of an empire…
by: Michael Shields
I have never been shy in my proclamation that I believe Jay Z is the greatest rapper of all time. I never leave this bold claim on an island however, as without proper justification of this claim it is simply unsubstantiated hyperbole. Because art is subjective, and when it comes to rap, there is no scientific method to calculating who has the best flow. What I am alluding to when I verbally crown Jay Z the King of Hip-Hop is the touting of what I see clearly as the most illustrious career of any rapper to have done it. This proclamation isn’t about lyrical dexterity, and technique alone, but rather about a man who has – in his lifetime – released a box set worth of greatest hits across a bevy of albums that are flat out classic and stand the test of time. And yet, Jay Z’s significance, and a contributing factor to this title I lay upon him, lies well beyond words spit over a beat, as it is safe to say that Jay Z is one of the most influential artists in popular culture today. Parlaying this cultural prestige into a colossal business empire, Jay has rubbed elbows with the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and his business endeavors dabble in the worlds of sports, spirits, nightclubs, streaming services, and beyond. Rap’s entrepreneur, went “from Marcy To Madison Square,” “from bricks to Billboards, from grams to Grammys,” and his rise to prominence is the American Dream at its most pure and remarkable. Jay Z has done it all, and is still making waves in the game1.
It wasn’t always this way though. There was a time where Jay Z moved product on the streets of Brooklyn and he moved it well. It is told that Jay didn’t truly need the rap game, as his pockets were lined already. DJ Premier, who produced three tracks on Reasonable Doubt (“D’Evils,” “Friend or Foe,” and “Bring It On”), recounts tales of Jay thanking him for his involvement on the album with a bottle of Cristal that Primo “didn’t even know what that was” and a Cuban cigar. Prior even to his debut album, Jay Z was living that life, a style of living that armed him with a stories to tell. And even prior to his debut it was already evident that he had a gift from above as he and his prodigious flow were already on display on tracks with his mentor Jaz-O, with Big Daddy Kane, and with Big L and Mic Geronimo. This is the timeframe when the foundation for one of the greatest rap albums of all time was laid, where what occurred in and around Jay Z’s stash house at 560 State Street was born anew, given another life, this time in album form. Here, a collection of songs that paint a portrait of the streets, and of living large against all odds, was born. A lyrical recounting of a mafioso lifestyle, where music is just another hustle that leads to the finer things in life. A candid portrayal of a young industrialist with a freak ability to spit bars. This is Reasonable Doubt, an album that put Jay Z on the map and launched his illustrious career.
In the early and mid-90s, Jay Z’s flow wasn’t as breezy and nonchalant as exemplified by his most recent releases. This was a time where words seemed to propel from his mouth like a tornado, spitting bar on top of bar where what resulted was more akin to a tongue twister than anything else. While evident in flashes throughout Reasonable Doubt, Jay Z tempered his verbal momentum in order to make sure his point was getting across. That point: Jay Z and his label Roc-A-Fella2 is here, and to stay – so get used to the idea. Reasonable Doubt had an edge, and Jay Z was nothing if not cock sure throughout. But it’s also playful, rife with masterful wordplay and it exhibits the aura of an MC that was altogether cool as fuck.
“I’m leaning on any nigga intervening with the sound of my money machine, and / My cup runneth over with hundreds,” Jay Z raps on Reasonable Doubt’s opening track, “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” an imposing commencement to the album. A stunner where Jay’s flauntatious rhymes are cut brilliantly by Mary J. Blige’s enchanting hook. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” will forever be remembered as one of Jay’s all time greats, with creative wordplay (“My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me / Tried to get a nut and he got a nut and what”) and his signature spirited bounce and flow that is both crisp and biting. Jay Z showed from early in his career that he was a whiz with a punchline. And he also wanted you to know just how hard he’s rolling, a fact highlighted on the braggadocio banger “Politics as Usual,” where we are invited into a world where “Ain’t no stoppin’ the champagne from poppin’ / The drawers from droppin’, the law from watchin’ (I hate ‘em).” Whether in life or in music or in business, it’s all a game to Jay, and one he was always ready for, “built filthy” on “some real I-do-or die shit.”
“Brooklyn’s Finest” will forever be known as that one time that two of the best to ever do it at the height of their talents came together to rep their borough. While exchanging verses and trying to knock each other down a notch, Jay Z and Biggie Smalls lifted each others’ abilities to new heights while making it sound oh so easy and smooth. Jay and Biggie had met prior to “Brooklyn’s Finest,” but in the studio recording the track was the moment both realized they worked in the same remarkable way – without pen and pad, usually off the cuff, stepping up to the mic and just dropping bar after bar of the goodness.
“Dead Presidents II” sampled Nas’s “The World is Yours” (“You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song” Jay Z recalls in “The Takeover” off of The Blueprint), laying the groundwork for rap’s most renowned feud. Atop brilliant production by Ski, Jay Z spits a pair of the cleanest and hard hitting verses of his lengthy reign. “Feelin’ It,” takes the edge off, and it’s remarkable how Jay Z’s blustering street poetry works over such a beautiful beat – but it is indeed a perfect pairing. According to Ski, who produced the track, “Feelin’ It” was the reason he quit rapping. He knew he could never touch what Jay Z was doing.
“D’Evils” is deep. It’s dark, introspective, and dabbles in the repercussions of street life. It is songs such as this that litter Reasonable Doubt that are both authentic and bumping and that add weight to the album, and help fashion it into the classic that it is. “22 2’s” is just bananas, a comprehensive jaunt of verbal acrobatics where Jay plays with the words “two,” “too,” and “to.” It is one of those tracks that needs to be heard to be truly fathomed.
“Can I Live” is the epitome of that groove, that bounce, that Jay Z is celebrated for. It’s Jay lamenting on the inability to just be, as his head sits on a swivel as he’s “watchin every nigga watching me closely? / My shit is butter for the bread, they wanna toast me.” Where Jay comes from “it gets tedious” so he “keep one eye open like CBS,” A simple question – Can I live? – asked in remarkable fashion. One of Jay Z’s most heralded songs. “Ain’t No Nigga” features Foxy Brown (at the ripe age of 16!!) and her flow is just filthy, in every sense of the word. “Ain’t No Nigga” led to Jay Z beginning to gain national attention3 and even caught Def Jam’s eye. It’s a sultry and funky track, and gets the party moving.
“Friend or Foe,” another track featuring brilliant production by DJ Premiere, is positioned as a track where Jay Z is speaking to an outsider of the crew, questioning his intentions (“Friend or foe, state your biz”). If I have any beef with this song it’s that it’s simply too short, but I’ll forgive ‘em as Jay’s rhyming over those horns Primo employs is remarkable.
“Coming of Age” is where Jay’s right hand man, his protege, Memphis Bleek, got his shine. Often viewed as a throw away on an album of hits, “Coming of Age” is an all too overlooked gem where Bleek and Jay Z go back and forth with stunning finesse as the track comes to its close. “Cashmere Thoughts” is a materialist rhymefest4, and possessive wordplay at its finest. Straight how it’s done. “Bring It On” brings into the fold Jaz-O and Sauce Money to lay down two sharp verses. Jay Z had to put on the man (Jaz-O) who brought him up in the game, and this was where it went down – to remarkable results. “Regrets,” the album closer, is another track (like “D’Evils”) that is a reminder that often you have to pay to play. On “Regret” bodies lay in waste (“On the rise to the top, many drop; don’t forget / In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets.”), but it’s all part of the game – one that Jay Z excels at.
It is impossible to separate the lives and careers of Jay Z and Nas. For better or worse, there is link there forever bonding the two legends. Whether it is due to their notorious beefing, the fact that Reasonable Doubt came out right around the same time as It Was Written (Nas’s sophomore effort), or that they both painted vivid and affecting portraits of New York City street life in their art, and that they were forever defined by their stunning debut album, you cannot talk about one without the other’s name imposing itself on the conversation. But where Jay Z differs from Nas – and the other MC’s that must be talked about when we weigh in on the greatest rappers to ever hold a mic (Eminem, Rakim, Big L, Biggie, Tupac, Kendrick, etc.) – isn’t just that Jay Z had THREE perfect albums (Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, The Black Album, and Vol 3…Life and Times of S.Carter is right there!), but that he birthed an empire around himself (I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”). In the mid to late 90s, what defined the dopest crews around didn’t have to do with being hard as fuck or even having the best albums, mixtapes and tracks, but who had the most thriving empire. And Roc-A-Fella in its heyday, was nothing to scoff at. Reasonable Doubt was the first building block in the monstrous construction of a rap dynasty.
Reasonable Doubt will always be considered Jay Z’s defining album and this has far more to do than it just being the one that he led with. And more than just the fact that it began Roc-A-Fella’s accent. Reasonable Doubt is banger after banger of some of the smoothest, most honest, and mesmerizing hip-hop to ever be recorded. It features stunning production, hard-hitting guest verses, astounding and unforgettable hooks and introduced us to Jay’s unique sound that demands you nod your head. It’s that rare album that you can rock front to back, and have the urge to run it right back. It’s genuine, true to who Jay Z is, and a remarkable exhibition of the talents of a young HOV. In short, it’s a perfect album.
I have a black and white framed photograph of Jay Z that hangs on the wall above my desk. It was given to me by a close friend and it’s a piece of art I cherish immensely. In it, Jay is sitting side stage at Coachella in 2010. It’s impossible to truly tell, but the available light paints the hour at near sunset, just before he is about to step into the limelight to show off his phenomenal stage show. He is clad in camo cargo shorts, a crisp white tee, high-top black One’s, and black Oliver Peoples shades and he appears to be taking it all in. I like to imagine that he is sitting there in a moment of introspection. That he is gazing off into the horizon and thinking back upon the earliest days of his career that led him to this momentous occasion, where he will awe a crowd of tens of thousands on one of the most prominent stages in the land. That he is thinking about the streets he came from, the studios he dropped gems in, the brilliant producers he was lucky enough to work with, and all that came in between. Because if Reasonable Doubt taught us anything it is that Jay Z is a hustler, a man who put his head down and went to work and would settle for nothing but the riches associated with dedication and a tireless drive. And now, twenty years after Reasonable Doubts release, I like to believe he is able to step back from the hustle for a moment and look back at those early days with pride, and the knowledge that the album which led off his career is one that remains as good as any album, in any genre, ever to be birthed.