As a child born in 1996, I was too young to really get into Jay Z. As an artist, I have been playing the saxophone for 13 years and DJing for seven. And as a music fan, I grew up listening to house, EDM, pop, and Latin music. This was all due to my upbringing in Bergen County, New Jersey, where I attended Catholic school and my fellow classmates didn’t listen to rap as prominently as other kids our age. Growing up, all I really knew about Jay Z was that he was a big time rapper and a successful businessman, most recently recognizable to me by his streaming service, Tidal. Other than that, I didn’t know much else.
Now, at the age of 20, I’m in college at New Jersey City University studying for my B.A. in Music Business, a program that could not be taught without the mention of Jay Z.
While in school, my professors taught me more about Jay Z’s career trajectory, both creatively and financially. Jay Z is not only a great musician; he is an even better businessman. He rose to his top by being influential, stalwart, and organized. But most importantly I learned, was that Jay Z is an influencer. Listening to Jay Z was pretty common in class every week at NJCU. With my professor’s hip-hop background, she exposed us to music we normally didn’t listen to. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I slowly and progressively started to like rap music. Before then, I had no influence by the genre. But after listening to various rappers over the last semester, I began to gravitate towards Jay Z. I was also turned on to a multitude of current styles, from Drake to Fetty Wap. That’s how I was introduced to Jay Z’s music, and the best way to do that was to start with his very first project—an album exactly as old as I am.
On his debut album Reasonable Doubt (which dropped June 25, 1996 via Roc-A-Fella Records/Priority Records), I sifted through a total of 14 songs and one bonus track. I learned that this wasn’t originally the title he wanted. He wanted to call it Heir to the Throne. I found it interesting that Jay Z once stated, “We named the album Reasonable Doubt because you know, with anything you do in life, people gonna judge you.” When I first hit play, I was kind of skeptical. But it opened my eyes to a new musical world.
I’d consider Jay Z more of a master at hustling than anything else, a two-sided coin he addresses on the album. He conveys this message in the opening song of his album “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” Sometimes, one has to hustle to make their name known. Loosely portrayed here is his message of “don’t hate the player, but hate the game.” He has an ego, reflecting that he’s the best at what he does and nobody can stop him—which in reality may have haters wanting him to fail. Yet he is still making it. He goes on to “Politics as Usual” to explain the sacrifices he made for his life of hustling. On “Brooklyn’s Finest,” I interpreted a knock to the police and the FEDs. The late Notorious B.I.G. is featured on this track, and the two go back and forth by trying to playfully outdo each other with every verse. This shows a perfect representation of how I imagine a classic rap battle used to be. On “Dead Presidents II,” he mentions that he almost got shot three times and thanks “divine intervention.” “Feeling It” is an interesting addition to his hustle jambalaya, entering like a jazz tune with a catchy background that one can hum to. “D’evils” is kind of a religious epiphany. Jay seems to realize that there is a bigger force that wants to tempt him in money and illegal life practices. In the hook he states: “Dear God, I wonder can you save me?” This is Hov shouting out his prayer before Satan gets to him first. “22 Two’s” knocks his haters once again. Yes, he may have had been on the opposite side the law, but he showcases that his image was far more complex than people may have thought.
And still the layering continued. The simple question “Can I Live” becomes the overall message after battling with a lot of hatred. The classic funk intro of “Ain’t No N***a” brings a party element to a harsh atmosphere. This one really caught my attention, making me bob my head and wanting more. This also showed me how Jay Z viewed women at the time, for better or worse. On “Friend or Foe” Jay Z battled with not knowing who he can trust. The conversation in “Coming of Age” featuring protégé Memphis Bleek seems like one of a teacher and his apprentice. “Cashmere Thoughts” was a little confusing and hard to decipher, while on “Regrets,” he is having flashbacks—in a way reminiscing on how the gangster life has treated him. The album is a journey indeed, leaving me to wonder: Did this album take his whole life to make? If I could ask him directly, his answer to how did he overcame the struggle of hustling and drugs would probably leave me on the edge of my chair.
Twenty years later, Reasonable Doubt was thankfully still a great listen. Jay Z spells out his tale of drugs and money at great length, while proving he had more on the horizon. Much like how I imagine rap fans felt in 1996, the album exposed me to a different lifestyle and allowed me to step into Jay Z’s early world, if only for just a little while. And shockingly, I can say I loved it. It makes me understand what I missed out on. I plan to listen to more rap music because of it.
(Photo: Priority Records)