Long before he was an internationally known, Grammy Award winning superstar. Long before he was married to the world’s biggest female artist. And even long before he became one of Forbes’ top earning entertainers, the man known as Jay-Z, struggling to get a major label to distribute his debut album. After being rejected by record labels, he along with business partners/friends Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke founded Roc-A-Fella Records with their own savings, obtained a distribution deal with Priority Records, and released the instant classic album we know today as Reasonable Doubt; a firsthand account of the rapper’s life growing up in the projects as a drug dealer.
Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of this landmark album for Shawn Carter and it’s celebrated mainly because Reasonable Doubt was supposed to be his one and only album. Legend has it Jay, Dame and Biggs had a master plan to make this one album tell their stories collectively, and get a 50/50 deal at a major label to sign new acts from the streets and build a better Def Jam. We all know what actually happened: they got the major label deal with Def Jam/Universal, put Jay’s “Aint No Ni**a” on the Nutty Professor soundtrack and the rest is history. Jay learned quickly that he could still be the label boss while simultaneously being it’s major artist. Now with all that being said, I still wonder what if Jay did keep his word and just put out that one album, how different would hip-hop be today? Would his Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches American dream story still have the impact it has now without all his major accomplishments to back it? This is a man who was a special guest of the President at the White House on more than one occasion. This former drug dealer from Marcy projects is literally living out the lives of the movie characters he depicts on his albums. He did what Michael Corleon, and Carlito Brigante failed to do in the movies he idolized: he has become a legitimate business man who is respected by public figures and major business CEO’s alike.
Looking at photos like the one above, showed us from early on this crew’s dedication to winning. They pre determined their success before the masses caught on. But If Reasonable Doubt was Jay Z’s only album, would the public and his peers still praise him as the G.O.A.T.? Just think about how many hailed Nas as the greatest solely off his debut Illmatic. The late, great Biggie Smalls was crowned The King of New York before his sophomore album was even released, but Jay worked his way up to put the game in a strangle hold. Each song on Reasonable Doubt has aged like fine wine. The whole Mafioso style he brought to the forefront was so vivid with cautionary tales about drug dealing while focusing mainly on the material and spiritual rewards of success. The album still sells till this day: it took six damn years to attain platinum status! The album was even leaked and bootlegged before it’s initial release; originally slated to drop in April of ’96 they had to do a lot of damage control to finally release it on their terms. However, once the streets got a hold of the album it was considered a classic. Many writers and major music magazines gave Reasonable Doubt high praise, and although some didn’t understand his vision then, those who snubbed the album are kicking themselves in the asses today. At the time, Village Voice writer Robert Christgau gave the album a one-star rating. In a 2011 review, he revised it to an A- rating. He wrote “Designed for the hip-hop cognoscenti and street aesthetes who still swear he never topped it, his self-financed debut album is richer than any outsider could have known, and benefits from everything we’ve since learned about the minor crack baron who put his money where his mouth was.” He writes. “You can hear him marshaling a discipline known to few rappers and many crack barons, and that asceticism undercuts the intrinsic delight of his rhymes.”
In my opinion, if Reasonable Doubt was released today it would be a huge debut. Back then, the Internet was in the stone age compared to now and I’m sure bloggers would force this album down everyone’s throat. Nas celebrating his 20 year victory lap for Illmatic is what really inspired me to write this piece honestly. Illmatic influenced so many rappers and it may be a perfect hip-hop album in many eyes but Reasonable Doubt has influenced how our current generation’s rappers function. Reasonable Doubt and Jay Z was, is, and always will be the prototype. Almost every rapper nowadays has their own label, some sort of rags to riches (started from the bottom) story, and wants to become a “business man”. There are always going to be imitators, but none will ever do it like Jay did it. This is why I get stressed sometimes, thinking about how different the current climate of hip-hop would be if Jay really left the mic alone after one album. I think the impact would still be huge, just not AS huge.
Reasonable Doubt means being able to show proof of something, so maybe Jay realized it would take the public longer to understand that he is the G.O.A.T and savvy business CEO like he knew he was from the start. Maybe after a few bad album reviews or not being able to get certain business ventures off the ground, he knew that it would take more proof than he felt was needed. Eighteen years later, and listen closely to how most new artist are still influenced by this album. Jay has a good argument that without a shadow of a doubt he is the one. rap’s Neo if you will. Beyond that he is justifying his perspective, his experiences, his life on record, and if not demanding that you saw his greatness early on, then simply suggesting that from this album alone he might have influenced many if not all the young rappers/businessmen in hip-hop today offering proof that it is a valid one. Here, he succeeds on both counts.