In 2016, Jay Z is regarded as one of, if not the best, hip-hop artist of all-time, but twenty years prior, he was nothing more than another rap hopeful on a mission to attain fame and fortune. After years as a street entrepreneur, Jay Z, born Shawn Carter, would link up with Harlem native Damon Dash and partner Kareem “Biggs” Burke to form Roc-A-Fella Records in lieu of Jay being turned down by all of the major labels. Together, they launched one of the greatest movements that hip-hop has ever seen. Building his name via single releases like “In My Lifetime” and his coming-out-party, “Ain’t No Nigga,” Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella would release the rapper’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in the early summer of 1996. Although Jay had been earning his keep behind the mic since appearing on mentor Jaz-O’s “Hawaiian Sophie” single and touring with Big Daddy Kane, Reasonable Doubt was his first true introduction to mainstream rap fans, and the Brooklynite made sure to make a good impression with an album that would prove to be one of the mogul’s most definitive works of all-time.
Featuring production from heavyweights like DJ Premier and DJ Clark Kent, as well as rising beatsmiths like Ski Beatz, Knowbody, and a pre-Murder Inc Irv Gotti, Reasonable Doubt landed during one of the more historic years in hip-hop and despite features from The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, Foxy Brown, the album would initially be overshadowed in comparison to the other blockbuster albums that were released. However, while the initial sales tally and Billboard rankings of Reasonable Doubt was nothing to write home about, the album itself was an instant hit with die-hard rap fans who were more concerned with its high-end lyricism and hustler aesthetic. Tracks like “Dead Presidents II,” the first single released in promotion of the album, and “Can’t Knock The Hustle” resonated with the streets and quickly became standout cuts that marked Jay Z’s arrival on the scene. But it was the aforementioned “Ain’t No Nigga,” a contribution to The Nutty Professor soundtrack with a show-stealing guest appearance by Foxy Brown, that truly put Jay Z on the map — and displayed his first glimpses of superstar potential.
But the true magic of Reasonable Doubt is found within its bevy of potent deep cuts, such as “D’Evils,” which sees Jay mulling over friends turned foes and the poisonous fruit that is the street life, as well as numbers like “Can I Live,” which brings to mind the scene of a a crime boss facing his own mortality. On Reasonable Doubt, reflections the life of a hustler navigating the trials and tribulations that the underworld brings are the constant themes and have helped cultivate our image of Jay as the callous businessman looking to make the transition from the block to the boardroom that has played out before our very own eyes. Over time, Reasonable Doubt would eventually nab a platinum plaque and get its just due and has since served as the template for many hustlers looking to pick up game.
Throughout its fourteen tracks, Hov’s debut album hits listeners with gems about the streets, business, life, and how to navigate all lanes and rise to the top. In celebration of its 20th Anniversary, we compiled 20 life lessons we learned from Reasonable Doubt that are apt for any hustler, whether on the boulevard or in the corporate sector.