In 1969 a genius was born in Marcy Projects.
In 1996 his genius manifested itself in the form of Reasonable Doubt. This LP was a message. Those guys in those black and white photos were all on the inside. They knew. We didn’t. The Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter we know today, the embodiment of 21st Century Black excellence and opulence, started with Dame Dash, Biggs, and this thing of theirs.
In hindsight that name Rocafella was more of a mission statement.
There’s something inside the man that absolutely refuses to lose. His debut album is a testament to that. First and foremost, it came after being turned down by every label, creating their own independent label, and completely funding their own product. Then there’s the fact that Jay made a work so potent and so undeniably great that some of the year’s biggest heavyweights Biggie and Mary J. Blige went out of their way to contribute to it and Tupac found some time to throw shots before his passing that same year; signalling the end of an era. Jay was embraced by and threatened by two of the greatest talents in music and entered at just about the exact moment their lives were taken. A state of flow is when maximum skill meets maximum challenge. Jay had what it took to seize the moment. Really it shouldn’t be a surprise that at 48 his life and career took the shape they did. You can hear it in the 26 year old’s flow way back then. He came for it all.
The Ski produced Dead Presidents was the first release of the album. It, too, felt prophetic. Nas’s words “I’m out for presidents to represent me” are some of the first words heard. In 2018 the man is peaking on a billion dollar net worth and in 1996 he was plotting on it. While these days he’s able to name drop media titans like Oprah, or presidents like Obama, or money gurus like Buffet and his relationships with them in a verse, back then he had the same energy with much different surroundings. Dead Presidents is a story with borders that don’t stretch beyond the street. Just a player in a game, Jay goes into psycho-analytical detail about what we do in this pursuit of money. All the while, his proximity to Nas on this track and the story surrounding it all but foreshadow what would become one of the greatest feuds in Hip Hop history. The haunting sample became a staple in great Hip Hop instrumentals and it wasn’t a sore thumb on the album.
Personally what I love most about the album is the sharp attention to detail. Jay-Z is an artist. He is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. And, per his legend, he doesn’t even write. As the story goes, this is the album before he properly knew how to structure bars or organize a song. This was before he learned that simplifying lyrics reaches a wider fanbase and he switched up his business model. These were raw, heavy, dense, detailed, layered, intimate thoughts from a man barely removed from the lifestyle he narrates. And it was scored using some of the most appropriate and cohesive instrumentals for the stories Jay kicks off. From boasts such as “ghetto’s Errol Flynn, hot like heroin, young pimps is sterile when I pimp through your borough” to wisdoms such as “if every nigga in your clique is rich your clique is rugged, nobody will fall because everybody will be each others’ crutches” or grim realities like “I’ll push you to the limit when I’m needing the wealth, and all I see is life’s’ cycle just repeating itself,” the proper moods layer it. Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Irv Gotti, and Jaz-O among others clearly took good care of it.
The way I see it Jay-Z’s vision and his rise that runs parallel to it doesn’t feel much different from tech giants we revere. Reasonable Doubt is his first Macintosh or Windows or The Facebook. From Reasonable Doubt, that combination of willpower and vision, an entire lineage of artistic, business, and cultural innovations spawned. It’s an amazing piece of work no matter what angle one looks at it from.
Happy Anniversary to Reasonable Doubt!