Exactly 20 years ago today, Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt first impacted at retail and promptly exploded across hip-hop consciousness with the concussive force of an 800-pound bomb. Actually, that’s a complete lie. The CD was more slow burn than barn burner, selling a solid but not exceptional 420,000 units its first year in release, peaking at No. 23 on the Billboard album chart (with no single cracking the Top 40), and failing to go platinum until 2002.
Given the debut album’s vaunted place within the rapper’s canonical body of work, however, Reasonable Doubt has come to be remembered as Jay-Z’s grand entrance with guns blazing, even if perception is really an abstraction. It’s the Brooklyn rapper’s favorite of his own LPs and certainly a landmark effort: a Rosetta Stone for the dope boy triumphalism, trife life storytelling, and aloof cockiness on which Jay has staked his $600 million empire that now spans music and movies, fashion, and booze. But then too, it’s an executive precis—the real Blueprint that defined Jay-Z with an inexplicable umlaut over the “Y” before he was the em-dash-abolishing Jay Z—laying out Mafia-inspired homilies, spelling out the “Lexuses/diamond necklaces” lifestyle at the heart of his self-creation myth, and broadcasting his arrival as Jay-Hova: the God MC.
Despite making the light-speed jump from slinging rocks in Marcy Projects to Big Daddy Kane acolyte/unsigned hype to co-founding Roc-a-Fella Records with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke to releasing Doubt (through a distribution deal with Priority Records) all inside half a dozen years, there is, notably, no whiff of get-rich-or-die-trying to the music. A relatively ancient 26-years-old at the time of release, Jay may have piled on the wordplay to stake a claim as the premier freestyle rapper of his generation, but he seems to be fucking around, having fun flexing his newly developed verbal muscle. “I basically accepted that I’d be a hustler who happened to rap in his spare time,” the artist born Shawn Carter explains in his 2010 memoir Decoded.
A New York nativist rejoinder to what the rapper refers to (none too progressively, it should be noted, in the song “22 Two’s”) as “too much West Coast dick licking,” Doubt is nothing if not a showcase for tri-state talent. Even though the sheen of borough unity on “Brooklyn’s Finest”—Jay’s duet with an already ascendant Notorious B.I.G.—masks an undercurrent of one-upmanship between the two. “Jay and Big had a lot of love, but at that particular time it was very competitive,” producer Irv Gotti told XXL of the song. “Go ‘head and listen to that record—‘It’s time to separate the pros from the cons/The platinum from the bronze…’ Real talk, Big’s goin’ at Jay in that record. ‘You ain’t harmin’ me/So pardon me…’ Trust me. He’s goin’ at him real tough.”
The Ill Na Na herself, 18-year-old fellow Brooklynite Foxy Brown (who didn’t have a stage name at the time of recording), turns in an indelible 22-bar verse on Doubt’s uncharacteristically goofy second single “Ain’t No Nigga.” Jay’s New Jersey-born Roc-a-Fella protege Memphis Bleek first received shine on Doubt’s effervescent “Coming of Age.” And Hov’s Brooklyn-bred mentor Jaz-O makes his impression on the smoov-jazz-inflected posse cut “Bring It On.”
There’s something ineluctably Bright Lights, Big City about the music too with production from the likes of DJ Premier, Ski, Clark Kent, and Peter Panic, whose sonic efforts combined to provide a stark, immediate, sample-based infrastructure as ballast to the rapper’s tales of high living.
In 1996, hip-hop was a fractured universe with a particularly yawning divide between so-called street records and pop radio fare. Making mainstream inroads that year, the Fugees’ breakthrough CD The Score racked up three chart hits, 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me unleashed two No. 1 singles, Busta Rhymes roared onto the scene with his solo debut The Coming, and OutKast’s ATLiens for once and for all established Atlanta as a hotbed of urban music creativity.
Despite being overlooked by record label A&R, told he was physically ugly, and overcoming certain self-admittedly low expectations—Jay-Z openly pondered retiring from music after his debut’s release—Hov came to compete. He ended up channeling a kind of latent perfectionism into its production, which goes some way toward explaining why Reasonable Doubt has wound up on so many Greatest Album of All Time lists.
“Jay’s drive is something I’ll always admire,” Reasonable Doubt recording engineer Dexter Thibou recently recalled to Complex. “He was so pristine about his shit. Everything had to be right. The beats had to be right. The lines had to be right. The pronunciation had to be right. All his punchlines? If you check the way that that man rhymes from then to now, he really focuses on what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, and where the last line is gonna be. You don’t miss nothing with that. That’s something a lot of dudes was not doing back then. They were trying to be clever and witty, but you’d miss that shit because sometimes they’d mumble they verse.”
That wordsmith-y meticulousness, of course, wound up reshaping American vernacular. You first heard it encroach mainstream consciousness through the late, great ESPN anchor Stuart Scott’s NBA Tonight exhortations—“Can’t Knock the Hustle” or “Can I Live?” or even more piquantly, “Feelin It.” Within two albums, everyone from pro basketball players to Wall Street bankers would lay claim to Jay-Z’s world-beating, chest-thumping affirmations of self as their own.
For my money (pardon the pun!), the piano-propelled melancholy of “Dead Presidents II”—with its Nas-sampling chorus “I’m out for presidents to represent me”—provides Doubt’s freshest birthday thrill. Recorded as a kind of hustler’s cri de coeur, the song ponders the countervailing forces of corner boy fatalism and Big Willie material pleasures (riding a skeletal Lonnie Liston Smith piano loop, it became the album’s first gold single). Message-wise, meanwhile, it posits money as a metaphor for transcendence.
Back before Jay Z had a Hip-Hop Cash Kings ranking, before he famously uttered, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” such transcendence was all so much theoretical pie in the sky. But when you listen to “Presidents” now, it’s impossible not to implicitly register: Jay’s reasonable doubt actually turned into grand scale wish fulfillment.