The Summer of 1996. Rap music was reaching heights that no one could have foreseen. Nas and Biggie were already establishing themselves as future Hip-Hop icons on the East Coast with the albums they released in 1994. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Ice Cube were doing the same on the West. I loved Hip-Hop.........or so I thought. The release of Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt in '96 gave me a new understanding of what I wanted music to sound like. It was fresh, provocative, and told the many stories of a hustler. I have never lived that life, but when listening to Jay's debut album, I felt like I was partaking in the lifestyle right along with him. That was the magic behind this album. The immediate connection felt by the listener. It also marked the beginning of one of the, if not THE, best career in rap history. The album went on to be certified Platinum, but that distinction did not come until 2002. Reasonable Doubt helped pave the way for other emcees to tell their hustling stories on wax. This was an album so great that it spawned a 10-year anniversary concert which had a 50-piece orchestra and was attended by numerous celebrities and fans. Here's a track-by-track look at a masterpiece:
1. Can't Knock the Hustle - From the thumping heartbeat, to the Pain in Da Ass intro, this song sets the stage for the entire album. Borrowing from the movie Scarface, Pain draws the connection to the persona's of Jay-Z and Tony Montana. A young Mary J. Blige sings the hook flawlessly and producer Knobody delivers a silky-smooth track that breezes through the ears. The song title has been a description for Jay's career even to this day.
2. Politics as Usual - This may be the best song on the album. 12 years after the release of the album, Politics still strikes a chord. Ski came through with an amazing beat that suits Jay's style perfectly. The line "I'm takin' wages down in Vegas just in case Tyson have a major night off, that's clean money, the tax write-off" shows that Jay is not your average hustler. Clean money = Street money everyday of the week! As simple as the hook is, it still adds a little something to this cut.
3. Brooklyn's Finest - WHOA! When this album first came out, this was the main song cats were talking about. And for good reason. You would think a song called Brooklyn's Finest would be by Big Daddy Kane and Guru. But, newcomers Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls took that title early. This was a back-and-forth lyrical battle for supremacy of the East. Biggie was already an established star and Jay had to show he was on the same level. With lines such as "Made a fortune off Peru, extradite, china white heron, Nigga please, like short sleeves I bear arms" and "Fuck a tussle, nickel-plated, sprinkle coke on the floor, make it drug related, Most hated" they killed it.
4. Dead Presidents II - Not sure how many people realize there was Dead Presidents I at the time, this song takes the same beat as the original. This was the lead-off single for the album and it is one of Jay's strongest lyrically. I guess 'ironic' is the right word to describe the fact that Jay used a line from Nas' "The World is Yours" to craft the hook for this song. This, in turn, led to the back-and-forth of hot lines, hot songs, counting paper, sampling voices, etc. But, who knew that it would come full-circle and Jay and Nas would perform this song together on stage. That alone may make Dead Presidents one of the most important songs in Hip-Hop.
5. Feelin' It - The fourth single from Reasonable Doubt originally wasn't even made for Jay. Apparently, this song was for Camp Lo and judging by the sound of Uptown Saturday Night, it shows. This is a smooth song-great for the late-night highway drive. Obviously, Jay is a better rapper than either member of Camp Lo so he does it justice lyrically and it blends with the album. But, it would have been interesting to hear it from a different perspective.
6. D'Evils - Jay has sampled other artists' lines and songs throughout his career. Sometimes it works (Dead Presidents) and sometimes it doesn't ('03 Bonnie and Clyde). This one works very well. Borrowing from Snoop's "Murder Was the Case", Jay and DJ Premier paint a vivid picture of all the things that can go wrong when living a hustler's life. The second verse tells the story of two friends who lose their way because of money. This is one of the many lines in Jay's catalogue that foreshadows a future event in his life. It's also worth noting that Lupe Fiasco had an issue with Jay praying to Gotti and not God, but this song is so ill I can look past it if Lupe can.
7. 22 Two's - Let's start off by giving props to A Tribe Called Quest. They lay the foundation for a witty, clever, and real cut off the album. Jay takes his flow to the small club circuit and drops a few lines for the common folk. I actually counted and there are 22 2's. The song is simple enough in its concept, but the execution makes it damn near brilliant. With the addition of 44 4's a few years ago, I guess we can only wait for 66 6's to complete the trilogy!
8. Can I Live - Irv Gotti? DJ Irv? The Murder Inc. Irv? That guy made the best beat on the entire album. Sounds crazy, but there is no denying this banger. It's cinematic in its tone and in the lyrics. It is the ultimate guide to 'living it up.' With lines like "I'd rather die enormous than live dormant that's how we on it, Live at the main event, I bet a trip to Maui on it" it shows that these guys are playing on a different level than most of us. Irv didn't do much to the Isaac Hayes classic "Look of Love", but the minor tweaks made this a song for the ages.
9. Ain't No Nigga - I don't know if Foxy was 16 or 17 when this came out, but either way she was talking about things she had no business knowing about. The biggest charting single on Reasonable Doubt was probably its most catchy song as well. I don't think too many women agree with the premise of a man doing whatever he wants as long as the gifts keep flowing, but they sure did make it sound fun! Props to Jaz-O for producing Jay's first hit record. SMH.
10. Friend or Foe - "State ya biz!!!" This shit is hilarious. I still do not understand why Jay and Premo don't make more songs together because on his first two albums he showed the results are crazy! This is more like an interlude than a song, but still memorable nonetheless.
11. Coming of Age - I think it is safe to say that Bleek used to be a good rapper. He didn't write his verse on this, but he spit it as good as any weed carrier can. Coming of Age showed the relationship between an established hustler and a shorty on the block that he saw something in. I mean, is there any better advice than "You let them other niggas get the name, skip the fame. Ten thou' or a hundred G's keep your shit the same."
12. Cashmere Thoughts - I never really appreciated this song until I got older. I liked it. But, didn't appreciate it. It took me a few years to break down "The proper etiquette, when I drop the subject verb, then the predicate, with this rich nigga rhetoric." Wow! Clark Kent crafted one of the most slept on songs I've ever heard. I actually went back and listened to the sampled "Save Their Souls" by Bohannon and it just makes this song so much more than it was when I first heard it. SLEEPER!
13. Bring It On - Premo's third go around on Reasonable Doubt is a standout track. Roc-a-Fella associates Jaz and Sauce Money join Jay in making a very nice posse cut. They all come with really good lyrics on this song and the beat is so smooth. It feels really weird hearing Joey Crack in the background, but it brings a special New York feel to the song.
14. Regrets - Without question, this self-reflective song is the most personal on the album. This was the first of many Jay songs that delve into his personal life. In the vein of "You Must Love Me", "Soon You'll Understand", and "Lucky Me" this song takes a break from the Cristal sippin', the money spending, and the fast life. It's a perfect song to conclude the album as it wraps up all the things that we heard in previous songs. All the things you do come back around. You will make mistakes. You have to live with them. Nuff said.