Black Music Month: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

I was a few days removed from my high school graduation, feeling mannish, when I walked into the record store on June 25, 1996. This place developed a reputation in the hood for selling CD’s well before their release date, so when I was offered Nas’ It Was Written, I jumped at the opportunity to own it before others. However, my shopping list consisted of one CD that day, Reasonable Doubt, the debut album from Jay-Z.
That skinny nigga on the boat?

The “In My Lifetime” video opened my ears to the guy we would come to know as Jigga, Jay-Hova, Hov, S. Carter, Hovito, William H. Holla, Young Hov and the gangster Shawn Corey Carter. Long before he married a reigning queen of pop culture and was racing to a billion dollars, he was a dope M.C. from Brooklyn simply try to find his way in a hip-hop world dominated by the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

As funny as it sounds now, not many were paying attention to Jay-Z at the time; the record labels, video stations, magazines, radio or hip-hop heads. All of that started to change with the release of “Ain’t No Nigga”, his duet with Foxy Brown that grabbed airplay and attention in the clubs, made Foxy a star and gave his album a bona fide hit.
You made it a hot line; I made it a hot song

Mainstream hip-hop caught up with “Ain’t No…”, but those in the know knew with “Dead Presidents” that we were on to something great. Riding a Nas sample, Jay painted a picture of a hustler’s ambition, fueled by the quest for dead presidents, but burdened with the cost that pursuit. This was definitely an album made for the hustlers and those that understood the lifestyle, from the periphery to its inner sanctum.
Reasonable Doubt gave back story to the guy floating through your hood in that new Lexus; the guy partially responsible for the destruction of your community, it told his story. The album is not all glamour, because the hustler’s life isn’t; the paranoia, the rivalries, the lost relationships with family and others, the desperation, the constant cat & mouse game with the law and that internal guilt, all the effects of the trade are layered throughout the tracks on Jay-Z’s first classic album.

Something epic…

Going to toe-to-toe with Biggie on “Brooklyn’s Finest” cemented his standing as a hot M.C., but the wordplay displayed on “22 Two’s”, put him in that conversation with Biggie and Nas. You know the conversation, “Who’s the hottest M.C., Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas?” Take a listen to “Friend or Foe” or “Coming of Age” and listen to how he relates common occurrences in the game with wit and dexterity, yet with a calmness associated with a father/son conversation. That laid back delivery and cool would become his trademark, he never seemed to attack a beat, and instead rides with it becoming the music himself. Save for Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy’s Hitmen, this album was crafted by the day’s best producers, giving it that decidedly BKNY sound that meshed with another great BK rhyme spitter.
It took nearly six years for the album to reach platinum status, though it was critically acclaimed and hood approved from day one, but it wasn’t until her blew with subsequent albums that it crossed the one million sales mark. I look at that as a testament to the staying power of the music, the integrity of the sound, the richness in his flow. 15 years later it’s still a better listen than much of what I’ve heard between then and now. In fact, I still have my original CD (scratch free) and it’s the very first CD in my case…

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