Label: Roc-A-Fella, Priority
Producers: Knobody, The Hitmen, Ski, Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Irv Gotti, Big Jaz, Peter Panic
Features: Mary J. Blige, Mecca, Foxy Brown, Big Jaz, Memphis Bleek, Sauce Money, Notorious B.I.G.
Sales: 1.5 million copies
“I gave you prophecy on my first joint,” said Jay-Z, on “Hard Knock Life.” “And you all lamed out.” It’s true, we did. Critically acclaimed upon its release, Reasonable Doubt didn’t initially sell very well at all. There are reasons for this. It boasted no smash pop single, it piggybacked on popular themes and styles of the time ("mafioso rap"), and its tight focus and quiet skill didn’t do much to establish Jay as any kind of "heir to throne"—the album’s original title. But hind-sight is 20/20 as they say, and Jay's debut has aged like fine wine.
For a guy who spent his entire album trying to convince you he was just a crack dealer who just happened to be good at rapping, his rhymes were uniquely professional. Reasonable Doubt is often praised for its intricate lyricism. Rightfully so, any album that has lines like, "I tell you half a story/The rest you fill it in/Long as the villain win,” and defiant comebacks like, “Forgetting all I ever knew, convenient amnesia/I suggest you call my lawyer/I know the procedure,” deserve all the praise in the world.
Yet it’s the production on the album that never gets enough props. In contrast to the the grimness of the Queensbridge sound, or the lo-fi weirdness of A Tribe Called Quest or Wu-Tang Clan, the jazzy, elegant aesthetic created by Ski Beatz, DJ Clark Kent, and DJ Premier sounded tight and crisp and finely-polished. He might have claimed there was “Too much West Coast dick licking” on “22 Twos,” but he was clearly taking notes on the way Dr. Dre’s beats were mixed and mastered like pop records. And time has treated them well.
Aside from the beats and rhymes, Jay’s persona carries much of the weight on the album. Since it was his debut, Jay had the blank canvas of anonymity. As noted, mafioso rap was popular the the time, and Jay was simply more convincing as a Don Dada than most of his peers. In an era when violence seemed to give every rapper either a hard-on or a stomachache, Jay never seemed particularly enthused about the the rougher side of streetlife, but he was also not above it. He offered first hand accounts of shoving a gun in someone’s face, and describes using a former friend's baby mama in a plot to exact revenge. But he also expresses regrets. He dreamed of meditating like a Buddhist, but he acknowledges his greed and his taste for material pleasures.
Maybe that’s why he somehow sounds richer on here sipping margaritas and popping Cristal than he does copping Basquiats and popping D'ussé today. (Even if his net worth has multiplied by at least a hundred since '96.) Maybe Versace suits and platinum Rolexes just fit him better than Maison Martin Margiela tees and Hublot watches. And maybe that’s why true Jay heads prefer the refined luxury of his debut. —Insanul Ahmed