When Jay Z released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996, it was hailed as an instant classic, a high-water mark for the genre and the announcement of the arrival of a genius talent.
Chill. C'mon, you know it took years to get that acclaim.
Nah, man, you're crazy. Where did you hear it at?
And so on. This is not a new conversation; in fact, it's a relatively well-trod debate in the hip-hop community. On Wednesday, it began all over again after Atlanta MC Future came out as Reasonable Doubt truther. During a conversation with LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Steve Stoute, he said, "Jay Z wasn’t great when 2pac and Biggie was alive. It was Biggie, Tupac, Ice Cube. [Reasonable Doubt] wasn’t hot until [Tupac and Biggie] died."
The 33 year old continued, "I’m saying at that time, [it wasn’t hot]. They always go back for your classic album. When Nas dropped his first album, it was great then. When I Ruled The World came out, it was the best then. You have to go back and listen to Reasonable Doubt and [think] this the best shit ever."
In an attempt to settle this debate once and for all, Alex Gale and Angel Diaz have agreed to polite discourse on the subject.
Angel: I do and don’t get what Future and others are saying about Reasonable Doubt in the grand scheme of things. In terms of mainstream success and recognition, Jay didn’t really pop until Vol. 2. However, and more importantly, the streets did fuck with him, and so did Biggie. I remember being 13 years old in 1996 and hearing Reasonable Doubt all over North Jersey, where I grew up. My uncle and his friends played that album constantly because they related to it. Jay wasn’t rapping about sticking pregnant mothers up and taking No. 1 Mom pendants, he was talking about pushing weight and spending the re-up on Cristal. I feel like the argument people were making last night was a bit off-base and gave too much credit to mainstream mediums like MTV and rap publications. The streets have and always will dictate what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to rap music.
Alex: You’re correct on that point, but overall I think Future was right. He just said in a somewhat awkward way. He wasn’t saying that Reasonable Doubt wasn’t good — he was saying it was overlooked at the time. And that’s pretty true on an empirical basis: The album hit No. 23 on the Billboard 200 when it came out in June 1996, and never went higher than that. And according to the always right folks at Wikipedia, it had sold only 420,000 copies in the U.S. by the end of the year. It didn’t go platinum until 2002, and this was in the era when you could sneeze on a Trackmasters beat and go double-plat. It may have been hot in the small circle of NYC we grew up in, but at the time acts like Mic Geronimo and Jeru Tha Damaja, who folks barely remember now, were just as hot in that bubble. Outside of it, Jay just wasn’t hitting. Yet.
Angel: You also have to take into account where Future grew up. Hip-hop back then was super regional. The first time I heard about OutKast was when I saw the “Player’s Ball” video on the Box, and remember seeing the “ATLiens” video a couple years later on MTV. I had no clue who these cats were. So to the rest of the country Jigga was relatively unknown, but to the tri-state we knew who he was. “Ain’t No” was getting consistent play on Hot 97. The album came out during the summer of ‘96, he was then on Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na single “I’ll Be” later that year. The acts you mention were the gritty guys whose fans really didn’t care much about what Jay was doing on RD. He was of the Bad Boy R&B rapper variety, if you will.
Also, Jay wasn’t signed to a major label. He, Dame Dash, and Biggs were funding everything themselves. That’s why Biggie took a like to them, because they lived what they rapped about. A lot of people in my neighborhood gravitated towards that, especially the big money guys that popped bottles in clubs when they went to New York. He got the Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella partnership because of how good Reasonable Doubt was. Album sales don’t hold much weight when most of the hip-hop community were dubbing tapes anyway. There’s no way to quantify that.
Most people nowadays take the revisionist take: Reasonable Doubt was an instant classic! This grizzled New York rap nerd says nah.
Alex: But even in the New York scene you’re talking about, Jay was fully in the shadow of Biggie. And outside of it he was fully in the shadow of ‘Pac. You had these two larger-than-life characters in their primes, the first rappers who appealed to the mainstream and the streets in a credible way, partly because of their bombastic images. They sucked the air out the room. Jay, on the other hand, was much more subtle and understated. The rhymes were amazing but you had to dig deep to notice.
And this is where Future was right: Once Pac died in the September 1996, and Biggie in March 1997, Jay finally had room to shine. And not only shine, but in some ways fully step into Biggie’s shoes, in terms of music, image and business approach. Biggie helped pioneer suited-up mafia rap that could work in the clubs, the charts and the streets, and after he passed, Jay ran with that for years.
Angel: Jay admitted to that on more than one occasion. On “Hard Knock Life,” he rapped: “I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y'all lamed out/Didn't really appreciate it 'til the second one came out.” Key phrase: “lamed out.” Official street dudes rocked with that album because he was talking their language and to me they’re more important, because they’re the real trendsetters. When it comes to taste, whether it be music, fashion, etc., those larger-than-life street hustlers were the guys rappers and fans looked up to. I remember riding shotgun in my uncle’s burgundy Mercury Cougar with “Can I Live” rumbling through the speakers—and this is in North Jersey, so I can only imagine what it was like in NYC. The mainstream was late to the party as usual. The streets, or at least non-broke street cats, played that album along with all the other projects that dropped that year. 1996 was a crazy year for rap. It’s when it went from hood darling to national phenomenon. The album was overlooked because it didn’t get the same push as some of the other records did.
Alex: My experience was a little different. At that time, New York rap was just beginning its slow split into the underground vs. the shiny suits. I was a card-carrying fanboy of the former. And Reasonable Doubt, and Jay at that time, didn’t really fully fit in with that camp. Below Biggie, it was Wu-Tang, Nas, and Mobb Deep who ran New York at the time, and they were grimy as fuck then. It was army fatigues and Timbs. A lot of folks I knew looked at Jay’s suits and Cristal very skeptically—not only because we thought it was corny, but because we thought it was a Biggie bite. (Recall that Nas’ It Was Written came out a few weeks after Reasonable Doubt, and it was widely seen as a disappointment, mostly because of his Jay-like move away from Illmatic grit to jiggy Mafioso rap.)
But once you got past Jay’s sleek image, even the most independent-as-fuck backpackers had to recognize that the guy was an amazing rapper, both in terms of lyrics and pure technique. It took a while for people to see that—no one was calling Reasonable Doubt a classic until well into 1997, and it was still a minority opinion then. The Source gave it four out of five mics—good, but not great. Jay was low-key and calm as an artist and performer, and the rhymes took some time to sink in. Yes, “Ain’t No” was huge off-the-bat, but let’s be honest: Foxy ate his lunch on that track. It was more about her bars (and yes, some reports say Jay wrote them) and that familiar hook and sample, which EPMD had already popularized, than it was about Jay.
Honestly, I have to give props to Future, who was a 12 year old in Atlanta at the time, for having this inside-baseball, rap-nerdy view of Reasonable Doubt. Most people nowadays take the revisionist take: Reasonable Doubt was an instant classic! This grizzled New York rap nerd says nah.
Angel: True, true. I can see why the underground heads thought he was corny, but then again a lot of those dudes were broke dirtbags. Jigga’s verses and his business acumen inspired cats who wanted to be dipped, cats who spent their re-up on bottles of champagne and went broke because of a lost dice game. My OGs that got money, liked Jay, It Was Written Nas, Doe or Die AZ, and Life After Death Biggie. They also put me onto dirtbag stuff like early Wu, Redman, and Boot Camp Clique, though. There were definitely lines drawn in the sand when it came to those two camps, and these rifts between different factions in rap weren’t aren’t anything new. But to say people weren’t checking for Jay? That’s the real revisionist history.
Alex: Well, I think we can agree on at least one thing: I was totally a broke dirtbag in 1996.