Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996): Review

Produced by Big Jaz, Sean Cane, Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Irv Gotti, Knobody, Peter Panic, Ski
Label – Rock-A-Fella

It is of course the archetypal rap story. The kid that comes from the Brooklyn slums, disenfranchised and disillusioned by his surroundings, constantly writing street poetry to reflect his eventual escape via illegal entrepreneurial activities and the subsequent world of dark insecurity and incredible monetary gain. Jay-Z’s first taste of fame came in the late 80s, contributing rhymes for then mentor Jaz-O. When Jaz-O was dropped by record label EMI, the young rapper found himself back on the street, resorting to drug dealing in order to fund his artistic development. Having caught the eye of established performer Big Daddy Kane, guest slots and further touring exposure wouldn’t lead to the expected clamour of record labels for his contracted signature. Undeterred, Jay would keep the level of interest growing by selling self produced tapes from the back of his car, until finally Payday Records offered a limited deal to produce a single “In My Lifetime”. Disappointed with the deal, and feeling that he could market product more successfully, Jay-Z left Payday and formed his own label Roc-A-Fella. The resultant debut album “Reasonable Doubt” was recorded in the Bronx’s D&D studios and mixed at Platinum Island. Various musicians/producers would provide beats and samples including Knobody, Ski, Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Jaz-O, and Irv Gotti. Contributions from The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J Blige, Memphis Bleek, Foxy Brown, and Sauce Money showed Jay-Z’s intention to reach into a deep and diverse well of artistic talent to help promote the record.

Most reviewers will tell you “Reasonable Doubt” is a defining moment in rap recording history. They bow to its technical originality, Mafioso imagery, and Jay-Z’s relentless flow. Certainly the bass heavy beats and simple down cast rhythms had been championed by many previous rappers including Big Daddy Kane and Nas. Indeed, one of the album’s biggest failings is its one paced rhythmic direction, which on an individual track may sound fine, but as a collection taken in as a whole is both dreary and forgettable. The samples used on the record are (barring a couple of exceptions) generally repetitive, colourless and hollow. Admittedly, this shallow backing may have been intended not to dilute Jay-Z’s vocalisation and to give his lyrics the full spotlight, but to create an outstanding hip hop album all the necessary facets need to be top draw, and that includes backing and beats.

Jay-Z’s lyrics mainly deal with his successful criminal lifestyle of the past, presented in a style that falls somewhere between gritty realism and braggadocio. Opener “Can’t Knock The Hustle” defends his criminal activities, suggesting that we shouldn’t be opinionated about the way he makes his money, and that everyone has a right to earn a living, whichever side of the tracks of legality it falls on. Targeting his financial goals on “Cashmere Thoughts” and “Dead Presidents II”, it comes as no surprise that this artist would eventually become President of one the biggest recording companies in the world. It’s easy to identify from the lyrics that Jay-Z is captivated by the trappings of the capitalist world. The constant “product placements” of luxury brands is meant as a mark of triumphalism, when in reality it comes across as smug self serving egotism. Admittedly, a celebration of his fiscal gain isn’t exclusive in the world of hip hop, but the constant references to Lexus, Cristal, Gucci etc etc….It makes one feel that much of the material becomes a Commercial Break for the feature presentation that never arrives. It’s all summed up on “Feelin’ It” as he utters “If y’all niggas ain’t talkin’ about large money, what’s the point?”

5/10

Track Listing
1 – Can’t Knock The Hustle 6
2 – Politics As Usual 5
3 – Brooklyn’s Finest 6
4 – Dead President’s II 5
5 – Feelin’ It 6
6 – D’Evils 5
7 – 22 Two’s 5
8 – Can I Live 7
9 – Ain’t No Nigga 6
10 – Friend Or Foe 4
11 – Coming Of Age 5
12 – Cashmere Thoughts 5
13 – Bring It On 5
14 – Regrets 6
15 – Can I Live II 6

Dead President’s II

Ain’t No Nigga

Can’t Knock The Hustle

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