Shawn Carter, better known as Jay Z, was born in the projects in Brooklyn in 1969. From such humble beginnings, he has experienced what can only be called a meteoric rise. He is consistently rated one of the best rappers in the genre’s history, has a net worth of $520 million, is one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time and owns a considerable business empire. This year, his debut album turns 20, and it has lost none of its shine over the years.
“Reasonable Doubt” reveals Jay Z at his early best. His lyrics are violent and never soft, but equally detached and at times reflective. Unlike the anger visible in Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” released four years earlier, Jay Z tends toward honest introspection about life on the streets. “Can I Live” features the poignant line, “Well, we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness/Sort of a desperation/Through that desperation we become addicted/Sorta like the fiends we accustomed to servin’.” The album has all the revolutionary sentiment of rap, but hidden behind an ultracool outer face.
Jay Z’s style is also at its most raw in “Reasonable Doubt.” The album lacks the radio earworms of his later records, such as “Young Forever,” “Empire State of Mind” or “No Church in the Wild.” His mafioso swagger comes through strong with references to Lexus, platinum Rolexes and Versace. However, that signature confidence is tempered by lyrics of hunger for the very lifestyle he describes — “Remember the days you was dead broke,” raps Foxy Brown on “Ain’t No Nigga.” In every song, his obsession over material wealth is evident. But through that rising-star attitude, Jay Z’s nuances stay constant, unfiltered and as smooth as ever. His raps are never frenetic, but lack the lazy flow of West Coast hip-hop — he sits at times directly on-beat, then moves into swift subdivisions, and then to just behind the beat’s edge.
The album leads off with “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” an anthem proclaiming Jay Z’s mafioso image to the world. A groovy backing track and backup vocals by Mary J. Blige give the album an edge from its first seconds, and set the mood for the rest of the album that follows. “Politics as Usual” is a ballad of a power-hungry rising star, with an R&B feel carried over from the opening track. The Notorious B.I.G. joins Jay Z on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a battle rap about the violence of the rappers in Brooklyn. “Dead Presidents II,” the follow-up to the single “Dead Presidents,” again showcases Jay Z’s monetary ambitions, through the sample hook taken from Nas — “I’m out for presidents to represent me.”
“Feelin’ It,” “22 Two’s,” and “Ain’t No Nigga” expand on his dark realism in themes of drugs, sex and relationships. “Ain’t No Nigga” in particular is remarkable for its dark contrast to the Four Tops’s “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got.” Jay Z deals with the violence of street life in “D’Evils, “Can I Live,” “Coming of Age,” and “Friend or Foe.” In “Cashmere Thoughts,” Jay Z raps over a gospel-influenced intro and funky backbeat about living life on the high end — “I talk jewels and spit diamonds … Caviar and silk dreams, my voice is linen.” He perfectly sums up his own style when he raps, “I’m smooth but deadly, like a pearl-handled pistol.”
In looking back on Jay Z’s incredibly prolific career, it is hard to overestimate the influence of “Reasonable Doubt.” It is the sign of a young rapper coming into his own, a personal manifesto, and most importantly, an influential and timeless masterpiece of hip-hop.