Editors note : Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” turns 20 today – Shaun and Jake take takes on as much.
To release a hip hop album in New York City in 1996 was a risky career move. Furthermore, to release a Mafioso-style hip hop album was an even larger risk. Now go one more step – make it your debut album. Good luck, man.
Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt came out 20 years ago this weekend, and it launched the career of one of hip hop’s perennial moguls. From the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn to a music streaming service, a sports agency, and a brand of alcohol. Reasonable Doubt started it all. And what’s more – it was all a façade.
Jay was just foreshadowing.
Mafioso rap was running New York in the mid-90s. Biggie, Nas, and Raekwon were the cream of the crop at the time. Yes, Raekwon – do yourself a favor and go listen to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. One of the best of all-time.
But actually, at this point in time, it is literally impossible to separate Jay and Nas’ careers from 1996 onward. Nas’ second album, It Was Written, came out the same week as Jay’s debut. Word association games nowadays go something like “Jay … Bey” but quite frankly, Jay & Nas have been attached at the hip for far longer. Nas was 22 years old on his second album while 26-year old Jay was just debuting. And then there is their history together, which would take hours to explain. Who will ever truly know about that ‘tek on the dresser…
So this Mafioso sound that I mention – just look at the album cover of Reasonable Doubt to get an understanding. This was not just any “I deal drugs” type of hip hop. What these rappers were trying to channel through their rhymes was something much larger – influenced by the likes of Scarface and The Godfather. Pinstripe suits and fat cigars. The girls, the cars, the lifestyle was all just too large for us to understand. And if someone was going to get got, they were going to get got in a smooth way. Imagine Jimmy (Robert Deniro) in Goodfellas telling his crony that spent too much money on material items after the Lufthansa robbery to just “keep going a little further,” until he is out the back door and was never seen again. This was what these rappers were channeling. Truly “gangster” rap. None of that drive-by stuff.
Okay, maybe a little bit of that drive-by stuff.
Regardless, Jay executed it very well. But it was just at a time when so many others did it just as well. Quick Mafioso album power rankings:
- Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (fight me I dare you)
- Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die and everything else he ever recorded
- Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt
- Nas – It Was Written
But Reasonable Doubt had this jazzy sound that the other efforts lacked. In the same way that the Great Gatsby remake film used Kanye & Jay’s Watch the Throne as its soundtrack, if you remade a modern day, smoother, flashier Godfather (please do NOT f’ing do this), then Reasonable Doubt would be the perfect soundtrack.
But here is the other crazy thing about Jay-Z rapping on Reasonable Doubt in 1996: it was all fantasy. Frankly, it was actually foreshadowing. Jay-Z has the crack dealing background that Fox News likes to rip apart, but it wasn’t anywhere near the level of extravagance like the picture he painted on tracks like “Dead Presidents” or “D’Evils”. Jay rapped about his gangster lifestyle as if it was a full-blown enterprise in 1996, and we all knew that was the furthest thing from the truth. But here we are two decades and $500 million later…
Jay-Z has been able to create this image of himself from day one and we have all bought into it – probably yet another close comparison to Drake, but don’t say that in front of an old hip hop head or you’ll get slapped.
In 1996 he was one of Tony Montana’s associates (this album); in 2001 (The Blueprint) he was the seasoned veteran on his yacht; in 2003 (The Black Album) he was an all-out ROCKSTAR; and in 2011 (Watch the Throne) he was the embodiment of wealth. More specifically, African-American wealth – which probably pissed off a lot more white magazine reviewers than it should have.
Present day Jay is a tremendous look in the rearview mirror on Reasonable Doubt. It set up the career of a made man, even if he wasn’t made yet when he told us he was.
If Kanye West has sonically had the largest impact on the 21st century of hip hop, then Jay-Z has had the largest impact in terms of image. And it all started with Reasonable Doubt. And that’s exactly what it was: an image. But no one can market themselves the way Sean Carter can. This album introduced us to Jay’s incredibly smooth, slow, deliberate flow with out of this world double/triple/quadruple entendres, and it was actually new to him too!
Jay-Z’s career began before 1996, and it was nothing like what we heard on Reasonable Doubt. That is part of the reason why this album was so surprising. Jay turned in the flat-top haircut and blistering fast flow over snare drums for the musical version of American Gangster (hey, he should do an album about that…).
This was Jay-Z once – as someone’s back up rapper. Did you know that? It is not good…
Hip hop is an industry built on image, and Reasonable Doubt created one of the most important images in the history of hip hop, and quite frankly, in the history of music. Jay-Z certainly ain’t my favorite – but he is an ICON. And you got to pay respect when it’s due. Reasonable Doubt is a fantastic debut album and it still stands the test of time two decades later.
I would tell you to listen to it, but it is probably only on TIDAL so too bad…FOLLOW THE OPEN FIELD