Shawn Corey Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z) is a veteran New York rapper who’s been in the hip-hop game for more than 2 decades. As the hip-hop landscape evolved throughout that time period, Jay-Z has always found ways to stay relevant, interesting, appealing and entertaining. Whether it’s the release of catchy singles such as the infectious “Hard Knock Life” that made Jay-Z an instant household name, the bouncy “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” that made everyone (including YOU, admit it!) get their damn hands up, and Grammy-winning collaborations with non-hip hop artistes like Justin Timberlake on “Holy Grail”, or his own clothing brand (Roc-a-Wear – REMEMBER THAT SHIT?!!), marrying R&B queen extraordinaire Beyonce Knowles and creating that online music streaming service Tidal that I genuinely don’t care for. This is, in part, due to his raw talent and business skills, both of which he developed in the early 90s as both an up-and-coming rapper (who collaborated with the likes of Big Jaz (a.k.a. Jaz-O), Jay-Z’s former mentor, Big Daddy Kane and the late, great Big L, to name a few) and an on-again, off-again drug dealer – which, luckily, he permanently let go of to pursue music full-time.
“Reasonable Doubt”, released on June 25th 1996, was the first album released by Roc-a-Fella Records (a label created by Damon “Dame” Dash, Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Jay-Z) and Priority Records. When it was re-released by Def Jam, the album became a commercial success. It was another entry in the Mafioso/ gangster sub-genre of East Coast hip hop which originated in the mid-90s, with the release of Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon’s CLASSIC debut album “Only Built for Cuban Linx….” (one of my all-time favourite albums, and one I strongly recommend you check out). But with “Reasonable Doubt”, Jay-Z did more than ‘glorify’ the joys and thrills of living that life. He also vividly expressed the pain and stress that lifestyle can bring, and how it can lead to eventual death. This “gangster duality” is a theme that would later be explored in stark, art-imitating-life detail in the late, great Notorious B.I.G.’s (one of Jay-Z’s best friends) second and final studio album “Life After Death”.
Anyhoo, 20 years have passed since the release of “Reasonable Doubt”. Does it still hold up? Let’s find out, shall we?
1. CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE (ft. Mary J. Blige & Pain in Da Ass) – After Pain in Da Ass’ interpolation of an early scene from everyone’s favourite 80s gangster movie “Scarface”, we get this nocturnal beat produced by Knobody (Hah! Nobody) which has some beefy drums and a murky bassline (which has this low-pass filter applied to it that makes it sound like it’s ebbing and flowing through your ears) that sounds awesome! Added to the mix are some vocalizing (with chorus) from Mary J., and line after line of cocky braggadocio from Jay-Z. And on this song alone, Jay demonstrates the wickedly clever wordplay (“We get together like a choir, to acquire what we desire”, “We do dirt like worms, produce G’s like sperm / Until legs spread like germs”, “My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me / Tried to get a nut and he got a nut and what”) that would earn him his title of ‘Best Rapper Alive’. Overall, “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is the perfect way to start this album, as Knobody’s (Ha! Nobody) instrumental and Jay’s flow makes you, the listener, feel as if you’re in the passenger seat of Jay’s personal limo (or in the trunk if you’re a hater), as you’re given a night tour of Brooklyn courtesy of Hov himself.
2. POLITICS AS USUAL – Ski (now known as Ski Beatz) delivers a smooth, soulful instrumental (which, like “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, serves as excellent riding music) for Jay-Z to rap about the daily, seemingly never-ending stress that comes about with drug dealing (the police, rival dealers, customers and the drug dealer’s connect – i.e. the “body politic”). Yet still, like he states in the last few lines (“Ain’t no stoppin’ the champagne from poppin’ / The drawers from droppin’, the law from watchin'”), Jay has no choice but to live with the good and the bad.
3. BROOKLYN’S FINEST (ft. The Notorious B.I.G., DJ Clark Kent & Pain in Da Ass) – After Pain in Da Ass’ interpolation of a scene from the 1993 Al Pacino gangster film “Carlito’s Way (or what would have happened to Tony Montana if he didn’t actually die in ‘Scarface’)” which is mildly entertaining – and short – enough to listen to until you realize that it has nothing to do with the fucking song overall – we get a bouncy, club-friendly beat from DJ Clark Kent (I love the upbeat piano melody that plays throughout, by the way) that’s guaranteed to make you lift your champagne glasses in the air and sing the catchy-as-hell hook (“Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls, n***a shit your drawers / (Where you from?) Brooklyn, going out for all”) or at least imagine you’re in a Brooklyn nightclub singing that catchy-as-hell hook. Jay and his hip hop brother from another mother Notorious B.I.G. have fun on this beat as they “battle” each other with one braggadocius, Mafioso-influenced bar after another, with B.I.G. delivering the best – ADMIT IT – in the entire song (“Shoot your daughter in the calf muscle/ Fuck a tussle, nickel-plated / Sprinkle coke on the floor, make it drug-related”, “Gotta go, Coolio mean it’s getting “Too Hot” / If Fay (Faith Evans) had twins, she’d probably have two Pacs (Get it? 2Pac?). Unfortunately, B.I.G. and Jay collaborated on one another song (“I Love the Dough” from the ‘Life After Death’ double album) before B.I.G. passed away prior to his album’s release. Shame, though. We could’ve gotten a collabo album from them at least. Oh well.
4. DEAD PRESIDENTS II– To be honest, this version of “Dead Presidents” was the one I heard first. And while the original version (same beat, different lyrics) was decent, “Dead Presidents II” is far superior, and it still ranks among my all-time favourite Jay-Z songs. Ski’s downbeat, piano-assisted instrumental perfectly sets the tone for this song, as Jay-Z raps about doing what it takes (violently or non-violently, legally or illegally) to get the money, the CREAM, the “dead presidents”. And of course, the Nas sample (lifted from the remix to “The World is Yours”) in the chorus is the literal icing on the cake that makes this song (whichever version you prefer) all the more memorable.
5. FEELIN’ IT (ft. Mecca) – Mecca’s hook isn’t half-bad, but it does fit the jazzy, laid-back vibe of Ski’s instrumental, which is also supported by Jay’s relaxed, conversation-style rapping. As a “thug on holiday” song, “Feelin’ It” is pretty decent, although every time I hear this track, I can’t help but remember that scene in its music video, where Jay-Z, Dame Dash and company almost got shot in the confines of his fucking motorboat by jet ski-riding gunmen. Shit, can a hustler get a break from mindless gunplay for one day? Jeez!
6. D’EVILS – Over a moody instrumental supplied by boom-bap producing legend DJ Premier (with some well-selected vocal samples from both Snoop Dogg’s “Murder was the Case they Gave Me” and Prodigy’s contribution to the LL Cool J track “I Shot Ya (Remix)”), Jay gets deep and dark on the evils of pursuing personal wealth and power. Unfortunately, time hasn’t been too kind on this track as its title and morbid subject matter have been the subject of many “Jay-Z’s part of the Illumaniti” bullshit articles and videos that were popular in the 2000s. But if you listen closely, without over-analyzing every lyric on this song, you’ll be rewarded with a thought-provoking look into the psychological effects of one’s obsession with money and material possessions, and how that obsession can lead to mistrust, paranoia and loneliness. Excellent track!
7. 22 TWO’s (ft. Mary Davis) – Throughout this track, you can picture Jay in the middle of a cypher rhyming his ass off and showing off his rap skills (in the first verse, he says the number 2 TWENTY-TWO times, hence the title) over Ski’s grimy instrumental. But Jay isn’t rapping for the sake of showing off: he wants to make a career out of this (which he did). And the beauty of “22 Two’s” is the underlying fact that on-stage, he can pretty much do and say and rep who and what he wants, but off-stage, he’s smart enough to know when and how to carry himself as a businessman and not just a hustler or “thug” from the streets (as is cleverly emphasized in the outro of this track). Long story short, this song KNOCKS, and one that I’m sure you’ll be listening to at least 22 times.
8. CAN I LIVE– So the Issac Hayes classic “The Look of Love” was used in the (underrated, in my opinion) 1995 crime film “Dead Presidents” which starred Larenz Tate. One year later, DJ Irv a.k.a. Irv Gotti, founder of the now-defunct Murder Inc. label sampled that song to make the FANTASTIC beat in “Can I Live” (which Jay sounds equally fantastic on, in case you were wondering). In 2003, former Murder Inc. artiste Ashanti sampled “The Look of Love” for her hit song “Rain on Me” (one of the few Ashanti songs that I genuinely like), and in the music video (which, also, I genuinely like), her abusive boyfriend was played by….Larenz Tate! Conspiracy, anyone?
9. AIN’T NO N***A (ft. Foxy Brown, Khadijah Bass & Big Jaz) – Also known as the song that introduced a then 16-year old Foxy Brown to the masses. And she definitely holds her own against Jay’s hilariously raunchy brags and boasts. The beat, bare-bones to say the least, is groovy enough to hold the listener’s attention for its 4-minute runtime, and the chorus (which blatantly rips the chorus from The Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)”) is pretty catchy.
10. FRIEND OR FOE– DJ Premier delivers another boom-bap beat, this time for the shortest track on the album. The blaring trombones that play over the drumbeat, and the song’s setup (Jay telling a small group of hustlers – in a “polite”, reasonable manner – NOT to sell product on his turf) gives “Friend or Foe” the feeling that you’re watching a scene from a classic Prohibition-era gangster movie. A short scene, yes, but classic nonetheless.
11. COMING OF AGE (ft. Memphis Bleek) – Cold, plodding pianos coupled with a slow drumbeat (with sprinkles of fluttering keyboards that appear in the intro and chorus) are all that DJ Clark Kent provides for this literal coming-of-age story where Jay runs into an up-and-coming hustler (played by Memphis Bleek) and takes him under his wing. I love the simple concept of this track, and I especially love the back-and-forth conversation Jay has with Bleek in the third verse, which is the same technique used in the entirety of the “Coming of Age II” track from “Vol 2 – Hard Knock Life”, where in an ironic twist of fate, Bleek comes across like a wild upstart with his aggressive tone and attitude, while Jay, completely aware of the change in Bleek’s character, tries to knock some sense into him. Mentorship ain’t easy, people.
12. CASHMERE THOUGHTS – In my opinion, the weakest track on the album, simply because its pimp/player theme feels out of place with the hustler/drug dealer concept of “Reasonable Doubt”. Yes, Jay spits some witty bars throughout this song, but they’re bogged down by a Blaxploitation-inspired instrumental that always fails to captivate me every time I hear it. In short, “Cashmere Thoughts” is good, but far from great.
13. BRING IT ON (ft. Sauce Money & Jaz-O) – Hands down, the BEST song on this album! EVERYTHING about “Bring it On” works! From the lyrical dexterity of Sauce Money, Big Jaz (a.k.a. Jaz-O) and Jay – all of whom sound hungry as fuck on this track, and all of whom spit a number of rewind-worthy lines in their respective verses (one of my favourite lines comes from Sauce Money: “Said we was garbage, so fuck college / Street knowledge amazing the scholars when we coin phrases for dollars”) to DJ Premier’s phenomenal instrumental (one of the best he’s ever produced) that’s guaranteed to make your head nod as soon as the drums kick in, and its hook (sampled from Fat Joe’s verse from the 1995 single “1,2, Pass It” ) that’s guaranteed to make you shout “Yeah! Bring it on if you think you can hang / And if not, then let me do my thing” whilst nodding your head. Definitely worth a slot in your Top 10 Jay-Z Songs list…..if you have one.
14. REGRETS – “In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets”. Jay’s message on this album closer is so simple yet so easy to ignore in our day-to-day life. Over a soothing, downbeat instrumental, Jay looks back at the bad decisions and unfortunate situations he found himself in during his former life as a drug dealer, as well as promises made to his friends and to himself to make the most of the life that he still has. And regardless of who we are and our position in life, we’ve all had regrets that we were forced to live with. It’s just a matter of learning from them, learning to live with them and moving forward. Deep message aside, this is one of Jay’s most serious and heartfelt songs he’s ever composed – and undoubtedly one of his best. Perfect way to end this album.
MY THOUGHTS: After the release of his debut, Jay-Z managed to put out other albums than can easily be defined as “classics”, whether it’s the commercially-appealing “Vol. 2 – Hard Knock Life” from 1998, 2001’s “The Blueprint” which officially introduced the world to producer/rapper Kanye West, his purported 2003 “farewell” album “The Black Album”, or 2007’s “American Gangster” which was inspired thematically by the Ridley Scott-directed crime biopic of the same name. But for me, “Reasonable Doubt” remains his greatest work, and will always remain my FAVOURITE Jay-Z album. It presented the perfect portrait of a person who wants to be as influential as a Tony Montana or a Carlito Brigante, ready and willing to do what it takes to reap the financial rewards of the Mafioso lifestyle, whilst dealing with the pain of said lifestyle and using it as fuel to help better himself, not just as a hustler, but as a man.
Currently, “Reasonable Doubt” is my fifth favourite album of all time, with Numbers 4 to 1 being: The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die”, Nas’ “Illmatic”, Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang Clan: 36 Chambers” and, of course, A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders”. If you’re an East Coast hip hop fan (like I clearly am), this album deserves to be in your collection. If you’re a Jay-Z fan, then “Reasonable Doubt” should already be in your collection, and if not…..WHY??!! And if you’ve never listened to this album, DEFINITELY CHECK IT OUT! “Reasonable Doubt” still holds up amazingly after all these years. Here’s hoping that it holds up for 20 – or at least 22 – more.
MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars (“Listen to this album before you die”)