1996 was a memorable year in rap music, due to several notable events that unfolded during that 12-month stretch. From January through December, we saw the triumphant return and tragic demise of 2Pac; the rise of a West Coast super group (Westside Connection) a global phenomena emerge from New Jersey (the Fugees); and the transformation of Nas from a street level fan favorite into a multi-platinum superstar. In the spring of 1996, amidst this flurry of activity, a 26-year-old named Shawn Carter eased in the game out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. With a unique blend of sharp wit, steely focus, undeniable magnetism, and an autopilot rhyme flow, Carter made ’96 noteworthy for another reason; as the year the world at large met his alter-ego: Jay-Z.
Though his first album dropped in ’96, Jay-Z was far from a newcomer to the game. Born and bred in Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Projects, Jay honed his skills as a teen alongside another Marcy native, Johnathan Burks, a.k.a. Jaz-O. Through Jaz-O – then known as The Jaz – Jay-Z got his first taste of the music biz; accompanying Jaz to London to record the 1989 release Word to the Jaz, making his first recording appearance on Jaz-O’s 1990 set To Your Soul, and being introduced to Brooklyn legend Big Daddy Kane, with whom Jay would tour in 1991-92. Over the next few years, Jay crept on a come up; making cameos on records for Original Flavor (“Can I Get Open”), Big Daddy Kane (“Show & Prove”), Mic Geronimo (“Time To Build”) and the Cash Money Click (“If It’s On, It’s On”); all while recording his own material, and angling for a solo deal.
In 1994, Jay-Z and a business associate, Harlem hustler Damon Dash, teamed up to finance and release his first official single “I Can’t Get With That”; and the following year, after being rejected by countless labels, Jay landed at Polygram affiliate Payday Records. When his 1995 single “In My Lifetime” sold poorly, Payday dropped the Jigga Man; a move that proved fortuitous for Jay, Dame Dash, and their mutual business partner Kareem “Biggs” Burke. Pooling their resources, the three entrepreneurs founded Roc-A-Fella Records in ’95, and secured a distribution deal with West Coast powerhouse Priority Records for Jay’s first album. That same year, Jay hit New York’s D&D Studios with a host of producers he’d befriended over the years; and in the spring of 1996, the Baller from Brooklyn touched down with what became the best album of his career; his full-length debut Reasonable Doubt.
Conceptually, Reasonable Doubt plays like a hustler’s treatise put to music. It takes listeners into the mind of a man bent on succeeding by any means necessary; and it shows us the effects this singular goal has on his daily life, as well as his psyche. The album’s tracks are occasionally bracketed with cameos by Hip Hop performance artist Pain In Da Ass, who reinterprets dialogue from two hustler-on-the-make films: 1983’s Scarface, and 1993’s Carlito’s Way. Pain In Da Ass opens the album by channeling the Scarface character Omar Suarez, and then gives way to “Can’t Knock The Hustle”, a prince-of-the-city number fitted with a bouncy nocturnal instrumental (from producer Knowbody), and a welcome appearance from Mary J. Blige, who sings a reworked hook based on the Meli’sa Morgan hit “Fool’s Paradise”, while Jay-Z goes hard for his bankroll, and a chance to live the diamond life. This mindset continues on the next cut “Politics As Usual”, a semi-remorseful cut set to a mellow Stylistics sample, where Hova moves with speed in the underworld, but reflects lamentably on the things he does to earn a living. The mood lightens a bit, and the pace quickens, on track number three: “Brooklyn’s Finest”. One of the album’s best cuts, “Brooklyn’s Finest” unites three Brooklyn icons: Jay-Z, The Notorious BIG, and DJ Clark Kent. Clark Kent does double duty on this track; serving up the full-tilt boogie instrumental, and shouting out various sectors of Bucktown on the hook. After Clark Kent lays the canvas, Jay-Z and Notorious BIG leave spent shell casings all over it; sparring with one another at times, and throwing nimble gem stars back and forth until Clark Kent’s beat fades. “Dead Presidents II” unites Jay with his old colleague Ski (of Original Flavor), who produces the track, and merges clanging drums, a Nas vocal break (from “The World Is Yours”), and a serene Lonnie Liston Smith melody, which Hov uses to portray a Lucky Luciano type gangster: encountering frightful situations, but emerging unscathed, and continuing with his paper-chasing endeavors. Ski remains behind the boards for “Feelin’ It”, and fits Jay with a lovely swing track to street-dream to, while Roc-A-Fella female R&B troupe Mecca lend an assist by singing the hook. The great DJ Premier (of Gang Starr) laces “D’Evils”; and as is his custom, Primo steals the thunder of every other producer on the album. Over three-and-a-half minutes, Primo constructs a butter saloon groove that melds vocal breaks from Mobb Deep and Snoop Dogg, and an obscure melody from legendary funk-soul maestro Allen Toussaint; while Jay unfurls a tale of paranoia, dollar lust, and their effects on his conscience. But Jay ends the first half of Reasonable Doubt on a lighter note, with “22 Two’s”, a dope, free-flow nod to rap’s true school, where Jay splices the words “too”, “to”, and “two” into each bar, and channels A Tribe Called Quest, with the chanted hook from their classic “Can I Kick It”.
The second half of Reasonable Doubt mostly centers on drug hustles and triple-beam parables; with infrequent pauses for flossing exercises. Future producer/mogul Irv Gotti – of Murder Inc. fame – laces “Can I Live”, a nickel-slick banger that utilizes a dependable sample (Isaac Hayes’ “The Look Of Love”) for support, and where Jay-Z organizes a network of servers to make his mail, and reaps the spoils from his villainous machinations, although envious rivals pray for his downfall. Jaz-O laces the thug’s wife burner “Ain’t No Nigga”, a simple production derived from the molten gurgle of The Whole Darn Family’s “Seven Minutes Of Funk”, that features Jay flowing on cruise with Foxy Brown, a teen phenom from Park Slope, Brooklyn, who plays Hov’s ride or die chick. “Friend Or Foe” is a brief but memorable joint, where Jay pushes junior dealers off his turf, over the hazy soul rattle presented by DJ Premier. Jay’s protégé Memphis Bleek makes his debut on “Coming Of Age”; playing an ambitious youngster that admires the enterprising Hova, gets taken under Hov’s wing, and is shown how to hustle with speed and intelligence. “Cashmere Thoughts” interjects pimp theory into the mix, and has Jay dropping mack couplets over the molasses groove from Bohannon’s “Save Their Souls”. “Regrets” explores the hazards of the hustle: the pain of a mother whose son runs the streets; and a hustler’s distress seeing his friends go to jail, or to the grave. “Can I Live II” is a swaggering update of “Can I Live”, with Jay bopping across a horn-happy groove with Memphis Bleek riding shotgun. And the album’s closer “Can’t Knock The Hustle (Fool’s Paradise Remix)” is a euphoric reworking of “Can’t Knock The Hustle” produced by Irv Gotti, with suave wordplay from Jay-Z, the body-rocking instrumental from Meli’sa Morgan’s “Fool’s Paradise”, and a grand guest appearance from Meli’sa Morgan herself, whose roaring soprano graces the hook, and reprises lyrics from her 1986 hit.
Reasonable Doubt was a modest commercial success when it first dropped; selling more than half a million units in the U.S. before 1996 closed. But this album only hinted at things to come for its creator, as well as his associates. On the strength of this album’s independent success, Roc-A-Fella Records landed a distribution pact with juggernaut rap label Def Jam Records in 1997. Over the next seven years, Jay-Z became an unstoppable force; releasing six #1 albums, selling millions of units, and establishing far-flung business interests that made him a hectomillionaire. Along with his business partners Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, Jay would also build Roc-A-Fella into a respected brand name, with acts like Beanie Sigel, Kanye West, Freeway, and the Young Gunz following Hova’s lead and forging prosperous careers of their own. Though he morphed into a media mogul in the early millennium, and is still primarily known as such, the genesis of Jay-Z can be traced to this album. Besides being his magnum opus, Reasonable Doubt lays the foundation for the magnate Jay-Z would become. This album has held up well since its release, and it remains the tightest album in Jay-Z’s catalog. Looks like Brooklyn did it again.
To listen to Reasonable Doubt, click here.