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​Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images. Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.
Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images. Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.

Jay-Z's 'Reasonable Doubt': The Birth Of A Legend

A complex look at the fast life of a hustler, Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt was released 28 years ago today.

Jay-Z has come a long way on his road from Marcy Projects hustler to billionaire rap icon, and at each point in his career, he has taken unconventional steps to get there. From the moment Jay-Z left his deal with Payday Records to form Roc-A-Fella Records with longtime friendsDamon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke in 1994, Jay believed in his future. Twenty-eight years ago today, that vision began to come to life when he dropped his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Coated in dense introspection, verbal acrobatics, and dynamic production, the LP launched the young Brooklyn rapper to status as an emerging force at the center of a crowded and highly competitive NYC rap scene. And make no mistake: It took a lot to stand out as a New York rapper back then.

When Reasonable Doubt hit shelves, The Notorious B.I.G. was firmly entrenched as the king of the Big Apple. Illmatic had already made Nas a star. The Infamous pushed Mobb Deep from young up-and-comers to surging rap stars. Jay’s LP had to be quite special if it was going to get attention. And it was. On an obvious level, Jay’s technically sharp flows stood out immediately. There were a lot of guys who could rap fast and athletically, though; Jay’s charisma and songwriting imagery made him different. No one has rapped about hustling quite like Jay. He made the spoils of drug dealing sound like a winding path to a life of luxury, even if that road to riches could be swallowed by the dark side of the streets. In the space of just one album — or really, even just a song — Jay-Z could sound like both an untouchable hustler and a vulnerable sinner who was bothered by the man he had become.

Reasonable Doubt opens with “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” a mesmerizing ode to the life of a hustler. The song, which features a beautiful hook from future legend Mary J. Blige, is all about high-dollar flexes; Jay is driving Lexuses, making six figures off the block, drinking fine wine, and making sure his women are covered in designer threads. The very next track is the luxuriant “Politics As Usual.” While the beat evokes upscale life in the fast lane, there’s an underlying sense of desperation: “Y'all feel a nigga's struggle, y'all think a nigga love to / Hustle behind the wheel, tryin' to escape my trouble.” That interplay between the fun of fast money and the cumulative damage of the fast life is a throughline for the whole album. Reasonable Doubt is an exercise in complexity, which could be lost if you only took his music at the surface level.

As a rap album, Reasonable Doubt still sounds great today, but what aged the best here is Jay-Z’s commanding presence. When he’s not matching wits with Biggie Smalls on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” he’s perfectly encapsulating the aches and pains of hustling on tracks like “D’Evils” and “Regrets.” When he’s not painting a portrait of the costs of being a hustler on “Dead Presidents II,” he’s swimming through the euphoria of drug money on “Feelin' It.” He touched on nearly every emotion of living life fast and pulled it off on his first go-round. Jay-Z’s combination of longevity and impact is unprecedented, and it all started on this day 28 years ago.