Out of everyone this week, Jay-Z is probably the artist that I’ve had the most musical interaction with. He shares space on some of my favorite songs with Pharrell Williams (“Frontin’,” “Young Girl,” “Change Clothes,” and “Excuse Me Miss”) and Kanye West (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Niggas in Paris,” and “Never Let Me Down”), and I went through a month-long period in my life where I was listening to a lot of Magna Carta…Holy Grail (2013). But I’ve always felt some distance between myself and Jay-Z’s music, and something about his overall vibe throws me off. Plus, we’re not gonna forget about how he basically blamed single mother-led households for police brutality. And more recently, his decision to start a cannabis brand rubs me the wrong way. But he has been a major influence on hip hop culture, especially with the release of projects like Reasonable Doubt (1996). So I’m putting my irritation towards “Mr. H-to-the-Izzo” aside to dig deeper into his music today.
Photo Credit: https://centralsauce.com/jayz-vol2-hard-knock-life-album
1996: Reasonable Doubt
Jay-Z may have made a few points on this project. Overall, Reasonable Doubt is solid. Even though I was the one that put this project on my list of albums to listen to, I had no clue that this was his first album. The quality sounds like what I’d expect from a veteran hip hop artist, but some of that might be because he was in his late 20s when this album was created. Jay-Z’s (and Reasonable Doubt‘s) influence on other artists was almost immediately recognizable when the project started. The work of people like J. Cole (especially his older stuff like Friday Night Lights (2010)), Lupe Fiasco, and the folks in Pro Era immediately came to mind as stuff that has drawn from Reasonable Doubt. You can hear it in their flows, lyrics, and the ways they choose to put sounds together on their projects. I’m listening to Steez’s Amerikkkan Korruption (2012) for the first time in a while, and you can hear the Jay-Z throughline on here.
I loved the variety in the production here, which looks like it was in the hands of a small production team that included folks like DJ Premier, Dame Dash, and Irv Gotti. Jay plays around with his flow throughout the project as well, so there’s a bit of a charcuterie board of sound happening on the project (I feel like that’s how a fancy man like Jay-Z would describe his music. I’m now visualizing Jay-Z drinking tea with his pinky up. Wholesome.). The features on here were just as solid. I LOVED Jay and Biggie together on “Brooklyn’s Finest.” That’s probably the strongest musical moment on this project, and we get it right at the beginning. The intro track with Mary J. Blige wasn’t as strong as I was hoping for it to be (Mary’s vocals pale in comparison to what I typically expect from her), so “Brooklyn’s Finest” brings back some of the momentum. The two of them go back and forth on the track, trading verses and lines like “Pillowcase to your face, make the shell muffle” and “the only MC with a flu / Yeah I rhyme sick, I be what you’re trying to do.” And you can tell that they had a bond outside of the music (friends <3); they truly brought out the best in each other. Jay’s other super strong moment on this album was on “22 Two’s” where he gives us a short masterclass on wordplay. I also enjoyed Foxy Brown’s verse on “Aint No Nigga.” The hook was garbage, but she was solid during her solo time on the track (though she was only 17 when the album came out, so something about the sexual lyrics on a song she was sharing with a 27-year-old man feels a little yucky to me).
My favorite tracks on here are “Dead Presidents II,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “22 Two’s,” and “Regrets.” “Regrets” was one of the few times where Jay-Z’s music has felt even the slightest bit relatable. And I think it was a good song to place towards the end of the project; it was a moment for him to be reflective and offer the listener that same space to meditate on their own lives. And the sample (“It’s So Easy Loving You” by Hubert Laws and Earl Klugh) on there is fantastic.
Reasonable Doubt definitely deserves its place of reverence in the hip hop album hierarchy. The album is well put together, Jay is at his lyrical best on here, the features are solid for the most part, and the production is top-notch. Will I still continue to side-eye Jay-Z? Probably. But I’ll be doing it with reinvigorated respect for his music! And that has to count for something 🙂
(listen to Reasonable Doubt on Spotify by clicking the image below)
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It’s once again time for me to work towards my dream of being a true hip hop head with another Week Fulla 90s Hip Hop. Last month, I took a week to explore some quintessential West Coast albums from Dr. Dre (The Chronic (1992)), Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle (1993)), Ice Cube (Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990)), Tupac (2pacalypse Now (1991)), and … Continue reading Week Fulla 90s East Coast Hip Hop – First Listen #58: The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready to Die’