Jay-Z has recorded over a dozen albums, sold over 50 million records, brought the Nets to Brooklyn, and built a business empire. He didn’t do it alone and it all started twenty years ago, when he released his debut album independently on Roc-A-Fella records (after being rejected multiple times from other record companies). Hov’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, is now widely considered one of hip-hop’s greatest albums.
It wasn’t always that way though. On June 25, 1996, when it first dropped, the album wasn’t instantly dubbed a classic. In fact, it took awhile for the record to catch on. But soon enough, Jay Z’s “wordsmith-y meticulousness […] wound up reshaping American vernacular,” reported The Daily Beast. Today, the release of Reasonable Doubt is regarded as a special and magical moment in hip-hop history. It was the start of a sound generation, the birth of Roc-A-Fella, the kick-start to so many careers in the industry, and an authentic ode to the life of hustlers in the drug game.
“Basically we named the album Reasonable Doubt because with anything you do in life, people are going judge you. Whether it be through interviews or radio. So the album is basically on trial... this being my first album.”— Jay Z in a 1997 interview.
Since the 20th anniversary of Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” is among us, we celebrated on the last episode of White Label Radio by playing Jay’s first album in its entirety. Our host, Melloe Won, dropped jewels on the history of the album and explained what the album represents in the hip-hop community. He said:
“The album for me personally was a dawn of a new age in hip-hop. Jay was able to bring the hardcore hip-hop head like myself into his world seamlessly. It was the perfect blend of commercial and grit. This was Jay Z’s defining moment.”
To continue in honoring 20 years of Reasonable Doubt, we thought it would be a good idea to share Melloe’s Top 5 Songs Off Reasonable Doubt:
5. “22 Two’s”
The song comes off as a live skit that’s based on a freestyle Jay used to kick, featuring Maria Davis. In 1994, Maria Davis started her Mad Wednesdays Parties where acts like Jay-Z and Missy Elliot used to perform. “22 Two’s” was apparently Maria’s favorite song for Jay to perform. Jay flexes his extended word game and showed extreme wittiness. The song actually does contain 22 uses of the words two/too/to—go ahead, count them!
4. “Can’t Knock The Hustle w/ Mary J Blige”
“There’s a song called ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle,’ and it sounds like I’m saying, you can’t knock my hustle. But what—who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle and like, at the time street—the streets was my job.” — Jay Z
This is the biggest song off the album, produced by Knobody, who said his beat ended up on the iconic album because he had a hot beat and gave it to Dame Dash, who happened to live across the street.
The song starts after Pain in Da Ass delivers some dialogue skits from the 1983 film Scarface. The song has a soulful feel as Jay steps to the mic and drops Mafioso lyrics about drug dealing and street life. The song was supposed to be the first official single. Similar to Biggie, Mary J. Blige was building a buzz at the time, crowning herself the Queen of R&B and hip-hop. And like “Brooklyn’s Finest,” the label did not want to have Mary associated with some unknown rapper.
3. “Can I Live (Produced by Irv Gotti)”
A classic Jay Z track for the striving and hard working. Jay Z asks a simple yet resonant question—”Can I Live?” Jay raps about dealing drugs in this song, but the track is also about work ethic and life more than anything. The song’s most famous line is about great ambition: “Rather die enormous than live dormant.” Though Jay is flexing his flashy baller status, he also drops a few gems on the record as well. The track shows his maturity, growth, and his aspirations for a better life.
2. “Brooklyn’s Finest w/ Notorious B.I.G. (Produced by DJ Clark Kent)”
The greatest MCs in BK history together on a record—what more could you ask for? This track is one of the few Biggie and Jay Z collaborations recorded. At the time, Biggie was the best, and with Jay on the rise, Big finally had some competition in New York. Jay Z recorded his verse in five minutes.
In an interview with Billboard, the co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, Kareem “Biggs” Burke, recalled the studio session for this song:
“This is something that we were dying to get done. Dame actually gave Clark [Kent] the sample for that song. Then, when Biggie and Jay sat at the board, the engineer came and dropped a pad and a pen right in between them. Jay looks at it and then he pushes it over to Big. Big looks at it and pushes it back. That’s the time they realized that neither one of them wrote lyrics [down on paper].
Jay actually went in and did everything in five minutes. He broke down the song and left all these parts [for Big]. It was a different type of beat at that time. Biggie was trying to really catch the beat and when he left, he said, “When I give you a song to rhyme on for my album, I’ma make sure it’s a regular beat so you could do a straight sixteen, not all this breakdown.”
Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossie, a former lawyer for Roc-A-Fella also recalled the making of this song:
“When I contacted Bad Boy for Big’s clearance, Puff wouldn’t, couldn’t grant us the full single rights. Big had been on almost everybody’s records and Arista didn’t want him to be overexposed… I remember being on the phone once again begging for Puff to let Big rock on a single and video, and Puff asking me, ‘Yo, what the eff is a Jay-Z? I can’t get Clive Davis to clear Big on some unknown rapper’s record.’ To his credit, Puff did let the Roc keep the song on the album.”
1. “Friend Or Foe (Prod. by DJ Premier)”
It’s that one funky and original DJ Premier beat that everyone is familiar with as soon as they hear the horns. Known for twisting things in a whole different direction, DJ Premier flips the beginning notes of Brother to Brother’s “Hey, What’s That You Say” for “Friend Or Foe.” In this short track, from his first album, Jay Z is a hustler, a drug kingpin who dismisses a stranger Jay and the crew think is planning to push work in his hood. The verse is structured as a one-sided conversation that shows how clever Jay’s storytelling skills are.