When I graduated from White Plains High School in 1996, my parents bought me an Aiwa 3-disc changer stereo (remember those shits?) as a graduation gift. The day we went to pick it up was the same day Reasonable Doubt dropped, so I copped it on sight because I wanted some brand new shit to test the speakers out with.
I was a Jay Z fan already, but it’s not like he was one of my favorites. I bought the album off the strength of the joints I had already heard—”Dead Presidents,” “Can I Live,” and “Can’t Knock The Hustle”—and the fact that he had Biggie featured on a song. Plus I read in a magazine that DJ Premier produced a few cuts, so that intrigued me, too. Trust me, I’d bought albums back then for way less reasons than this. But still, I wasn’t ready.
I can vividly remember hooking up my stereo, popping in the Reasonable Doubt disc, and listening to the album all the way through (while I dubbed it to a tape for the whip) in my bedroom on a sunny early summer afternoon. I was surprised by how dope it was! I knew Jay was nice, but these were next level lyrics and flows, with incredible insights, details, and straight up skill. Upper echelon shit, if you will. And the beats were right up my alley, with dope ass soul samples perfect for driving around to. Nothing wack, nothing generic. Everything was ill.
We took a ride down to the Bronx later that night to cop chronic, and I remember when I picked my boys up, I was telling them that the new Jay Z album was crazy. I compared it to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, which at the time was the shit we still regarded as the best rap album out. I mean, Cuban Linx and Reasonable Doubt are obviously very different, but my point was, “it’s that good.” They didn’t believe me, at first.
We let the album ride, and by the time we were heading back into White Plains and fully feeling the effects of the first L, “Friend or Foe” hit. And Jay’s flow on that shit blew our brains off. It was like he was talking on the track—we had never heard anyone finesse a rap like that. We hit rewind a couple times and then fully realized, “Jay Z is the God.”
Twenty years later, Reasonable Doubt remains in my Top 5 rap albums of all time, alongside The Low End Theory, Illmatic, Ready To Die, and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… There are absolutely no skips on RD, and it’s by far one of the most impressive bodies of work in the history of music, any genre. I don’t think any of us knew he would become one of the most celebrated musical acts ever with incredible success in the business world and superstar levels of fame, but listening back to his debut now, it kind of all makes sense. Who else would be able to make an album this good? All praises due to the God Jay Z.
Examining The Critical Response to Jay Z in 1996
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The Oral History Behind the Making Of Jay Z’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Artwork