The funny thing about Jay Z — arguably the biggest and most successful rapper of all time who made a monopoly out of music, clothing, technology, the record industry and marriage — is that he always sounded like he never needed it. Most rappers debut to the world as dirty, rags-to-riches street poets rapping like it’s the last thing they’ll ever do and this is the shot they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. Jay Z? He’s wearing a fresh suit and smoking a cigar like he’s the Godfather.
While other rappers had related themselves to being Tony Montana at the beginning — outsiders just getting off the plane in Miami without a cent to their name and nothing but ambition — Jay Z was already sitting in a mansion surrounded by black and gold and smothered in money. Other rappers started as political prisoners, Jay Z just saw “Politics As Usual” while sitting in a bubble bath. Jay Z and Tony Montana both blew the door open with a machine gun, but Montana did it as a last resort. Jay Z did it just to walk into the room.
Jay Z’s weapon of choice was Reasonable Doubt, his debut album released on this day 20 years ago. The former drug dealer from the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York started his own record label (Roc-A-Fella) and his own rap career in the same year. The 26-year-old wasn’t the commercial juggernaut he’d become, but he could’ve fooled everyone else with his exquisite taste for style and intricate detail of his hold over from his former occupation. He was still a man of the street selling CDs out of his car and using beats on par with influence/buddy/part-time nemesis Nas. But Jay didn’t appear to be the new kid on the block, instead appearing just as who he was: the boss of one industry wanting to own another. He knew how to maneuver the dangers of the business, keeping lady problems in check, how to respect his peers but knowing who the enemies are, and to always keep your humanity in a very inhuman business. How does any of that not apply to the music industry?
The mix of East Coast funk, piano-laced backgrounds and skipping drums fill nearly every song thanks to producers DJ Clark Kent, The Hitmen, Knobody, and Ski Beats. “Coming Of Age” sounds like Al Capone’s theme song if he was a street hustler in the 90s, “Brooklyn’s Finest” is gangster cabaret music for high rollers and “Cashmere Thoughts” is one of the East Coast’s best answers to West Coast G-Funk of the decade. Jay Z is also well aware of his musical competition, as “Dead Presidents II” samples Nas’ “The World Is Yours” to make a darker sound, while “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Can’t Knock The Hustle” sound like prime material for Biggie (and Biggie was actually on one of those tracks). The music may be the best of Jay Z’s career, certainly one of the few that have a consistent flow and atmosphere to it. The album combines Mafia-influenced dreams of East Coast rap with the gritty street bass of the time.
Jay Z’s presence alone brings attention, let alone when he spits a bar or two. Hell, his two lines on Drake’s “Pop Style” was enough to make headlines this year. But on Reasonable Doubt, Hova’s lyrics and delivery grabbed listeners from the first line. Right from the get-go on “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” Jay establishes he’s here for the thrill of the moment because he’s already got all the riches a man could want (“Yo I’m making short term goals when the weather folds / Just put away the leathers and put the ice on the gold”). “Politics As Usual” is pure boss-talk as Hov never takes a risk when it comes to his money (“I’m taking wages down in Vegas just in case Tyson have a major night off / That’s clean money, the tax write-off”). And well before Rick Ross mixed gangsta rap with a line about Lobster Bisque, Jay addressed haters with expensive vocabulary (“I got the Grey Poupon, you been warned / Cause all beef return well done filet mignon”).
It’s astounding how many ways Jay can talk about money on one song, but “Dead Presidents II” should be in the record books. What Reasonable Doubt has over his other albums is how bluntly and vividly he talks about the bad side of being a crack kingpin, and how it almost doesn’t phase him at all. Hova is MEAN on this album, whether talking about the act of killing (“Murder is a tough thing to digest, it’s a slow process / And I ain’t got nothing but time”), his rap competition (“Too many rough motherf****s, I got my suspicions / That you’re just fish in a pool of sharks n***a, listen”), and an unashamed brag about kidnapping (“Thinking back when we first learned to use rubbers / He never learned so in turn I’m kidnapping his baby’s mother”). He may know call himself the “black Warren Buffet,” but he couldn’t have gotten there without first being the black John Gotti (which yes, he does make that comparison on the album). It all culminates on the hook to “Regrets”: “This is the number one rule for your set / In order to survive got to learn to live with regrets.” It’s a great moment of humility from a man succeeding at such a sinful business.
Jay also is a good team player as he makes room for some impressive guests. 16-year-old Foxy Brown slays like hell on “Ain’t No N***a” (“Remember the days you was dead broke / But now you style and I raised you / Basically made you into a don”), Memphis Bleek packs plenty of bite in “Coming of Age” (“Diamonds reflect from the sun, directly in your equilibrium / And stunned I’m waiting for my day to come”), and of course there’s Biggie humbling himself on “Brooklyn’s Finest” (“If Fay had twins, she’d probably have two Pacs”).
Looking back, it makes total sense that the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z would make a song together. It’s not just the meeting of one of the greatest rappers of the 1990s and who’d become one of the greatest rappers of the 2000s, it’s the King of East Coast rap prepping the heir to his throne. And for those who think Jay Z wasn’t worthy of the title, who else would Biggie find more fitting? Love him or hate him, there was nobody else more fitting to take rap at the peak of its powers in the late 90s and take it higher than anyone could’ve guessed. After all, he is a business man, and Reasonable Doubt is his tips for hostile takeover.