"Reasonable Doubt" gave us an uncompromising portrait of Jay Z the hustler before the superstardom and entrepreneurial exploits.
Take a blind swing at any of the coke rap icons from the mid-2000s and you're bound to hit something Jay Z related. Pusha T's "I ain't spent one rap dollar in three years, holla" line from Clipse's iconic collection of stovetop sermons, Hell Hath No Fury, directly echoes a Jay lyric from a decade prior: "Without rap, I was crazy straight/Partner, I'm still spending money from '88." The plush, high thread count sound Rick Ross made a career off of before he heard his first Lex Luger beat? A direct descendant of the smoky, leatherbound Don Corleone office vibe Jay and his producers achieved with Lonnie Liston Smith, Isaac Hayes, and Bohannon samples. Jeezy's Snowman tales changed the regional sound considerably, but it struck such a chord with Jigga that he guested on the former's 2005 breakout album and even teared up when he heard their eventual collab "Seen It All" in 2014. For those only familiar with Jay Z as the mega-tychoon/middling talent he's been for the past few years, the homage he's continually paid by the latest class of rappers looking to take their kingpin ways from street corners to boardrooms may be perplexing, but press play on his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, and everything becomes instantly clear.
Every Jay album since has had at least one track that's made concessions for pop audiences-- "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," "Hard Knock Life," "Empire State Of Mind," etc.-- and his subject matter has understandably trended away from drug sales and towards boastful black card expenditures, but when he put these 14 songs out into the world exactly 20 years ago, he was the most Mafioso-themed rapper in the game. With the exception of Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which dropped a year earlier, most rappers shied away from first-person perspectives of organized crime. The two most prominent gangsters of the era, Biggie and Tupac, provided plenty of threats for their rivals, but save for asides about hustling in front of buildings in order to "make some money to feed my daughter," they either didn't get too deep into the drug game or were too wary to rap about it. Reasonable Doubt, on the other hand, opens with a latino man laying out a two kilo scheme to Jay (another thing Clipse repurposed for HHNF).
All of this isn't to say that hip hop was a lesser form of expression before drug trafficking was introduced as central subject matter, but trying to imagine the last 20 years of rap without any trap music, Coke Boys, Re-Up Gangs, Get Rich Or Die Tryings, or Brick Squads is near-impossible. Since the crack epidemic of the 80s, it's been a reality for the residents of many of the low-income neighborhoods that often birth rappers, and Jay was merely one of the first to have the gall to tell it like it was. He captured the doomed mentality of inner-city struggle with, "All us blacks got is sports and entertainment... As long as I'm breathing, can't knock the way a n*gga eating."
Reasonable Doubt is a luxurious, relaxed-sounding album for the most part, but oddly that doesn't translate into Jay glorifying his lifestyle-- maybe his material winnings (after all, he promises to teach us the difference between "A S1 diamond from a I class don/A Chandon sipper from a Rosé nigga"), but not the means by which he achieved them. The 24-karat funk of "Politics As Usual" sharply contrasts with his rhetorical question for the ages, "Y'all think a n*gga love to hustle?"; the mellow-sounding closer, "Regrets," features verses about a deal gone wrong, moral dilemmas, and the sudden, violent death of a hustling icon from his neighborhood, respectively. "The studio was like a psychiatrist's couch for me," Jay told Rolling Stone. His unflinching confidence bleeds through into every unhurried bar, but the Godfather image he presented in his personality and lifestyle showed its cracks when explored this exhaustively over 56 minutes of music.
Although the Mafioso angle is almost assuredly the biggest game-changer in terms of this album's influence, rappers also took plenty of other cues from Jay's Reasonable Doubt playbook. There's the bars that have been echoed by other MCs: "My cup runneth over with hundreds" getting repeated verbatim by Cyhi The Prynce on "So Appalled" and Malice repurposing "No disrespect to you, make sure your word is true" on Clipse's "I'm Good," for example. Elsewhere, Jay lays a blueprint for NYC fashion and lingo that still has life all over the city-- on "Can I Live II," he name-drops the two shoes that are still the footwear-of-choice for a certain sect of rugged and raw NY rappers (all-white Air Force Ones and Timberlands), and has the first on-record mention of the "pause" game dudes in the city still play to this day. Most important for hip hop though, this album and its aftermath taught that despite whatever means you initially used to get money, if you're successful enough in rap, you can always legitimize yourself. But not even really despite it, in Jay's case. Far from shying away from his beginnings in the coke trade, he's been discussing the impact it's had on his business career as recently as 2013, telling Vanity Fair:
“I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer. To be in a drug deal, you need to know what you can spend, what you need to re-up. Or if you want to start some sort of barbershop or car wash—those were the businesses back then. Things you can get in easily to get out of [that] life. At some point, you have to have an exit strategy, because your window is very small; you’re going to get locked up or you’re going to die.”
Reasonable Doubt didn't sell that well upon its initial release, having only gone gold by the fall while many of Jay's peers hit double or triple platinum, but thanks to the independence he and Dame Dash achieved by leaving Payday Records to start Roc-A-Fella, they were able to keep pushing it (now it's sold well over a million copies in the states). That was only the start of the storied Roc era, which had a massive impact on any rapper looking to do what Maria Davis urged on the album's "22 Two's": "We gotta build our own businesses, we gotta get our own record companies going." Even with the success of Ruthless and Death Row in the West, it was still rare for rappers and black businessmen to run their own labels, and and rarer still for those labels to keep their heads above water for long-- just look at what happened with both of those L.A. labels. Roc had a much better run, and really set the standard for self-made empires in hip hop.
It's easy to give Jay a bad rap these days, what with several lackluster albums under his belt, TIDAL's initially botched rollout, and of course Lemonade, but it's still pretty easy to reconcile all of that with the populist highs he achieved in the early 2000s with The Blueprint and The Black Album. Reasonable Doubt is decidedly an outlier, a relic of the years he spent as a hustler first, rapper second, and with no hit singles and a pretty unassuming vibe, it's not the easiest album to get into in 2016. Give it some time though, and it becomes clear that it's his most honest and least pandering release. In retrospect, it's probably a better candidate for the title "The Blueprint," because its influence still seems to know no bounds 20 years later.