I walked into Sound Express that day with a singular purpose; I was there to buy Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. I’d been a fan since the “In My Lifetime” (remix) video dropped and waited for something else to come. But nothing did. Not until “Dead Presidents” emerged early in ’96, followed by “Ain’t No Nigga”. While most people equate “Ain’t No…” with Foxy Brown, it put me on notice that an album from Jay-Z was coming. So, on the 25th, a few days after I graduated high school, I was walking into the record store with a couple of friends with a twenty in my pocket to grab Reasonable Doubt. However, something strange happened when I approached the counter, Nas’ It Was Written was sitting next to it. Somehow they had it out a full week early (this became standard practice for the store) and “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” was everywhere! My homies immediately grabbed Nas and I was stuck with a conundrum. Jay-Z or Nas? Oddly enough, I hadn’t purchased Illmatic at that point. I was too engulfed in Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang to truly get into Nas. I took another twenty out of my pocket and purchased both.
At this stage, 2Pac is probably my favorite rapper, I enjoyed Biggie and Nas, but I felt Pac more deeply. I felt him in the same way I felt Melle Mel, KRS-ONE and Ice Cube before him, there was something about the visuals their music provided me that attracted me. But, there was something about Jay-Z that made me want to spend some of my graduation money on his CD. It was that same something that made me a fan of Big Daddy Kane over Rakim. Perhaps it’s a Brooklyn thing. Ironically, Rakim and Kane are lyrical predecessors for Jay-Z and Nas and it always seemed like a choice had to be made. As an adult, I know that to be untrue, but as a teenager it was part of my identity. CD’s purchased, we were back in the house on an early summer afternoon listening to It Was Written. Repeatedly. The album may have played four times in a row. Specifically, “I Gave You Power” and “Affirmative Action” played often. I sat to the side, reading the linear notes to Reasonable Doubt, waiting for the day to end so I could hear my album.
Later that night, I plugged a set of headphones into my stereo and laid on my bedroom floor for hours entranced by the lyrics, seeing the stories Jay told come to life. Reasonable Doubt gave me insight into a world I’d witnessed from the margins; the way he put words together placed vivid images in my mind
and it was clear to me, this was classic! I may have been stuck on “Can I Live” for a few hours, but I would rewind to “Politics as Usual” and “22 Two’s”, often programming them to play back-to-back. The way “Dead Presidents II” flipped the Nas line into a hustler’s anthem was amazing. “Brooklyn’s Finest”, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, “Friend or Foe”. I went on like that for a few days, all lyrics memorized, Jay-Z immediately becoming one of my favorite rappers.
The album had everything I wanted: hard lyrics, great storytelling, infectious melodies and amazing creativity. I remember hearing “Coming of Age”, imagining many of my friends being in Bleek’s place, hungry to get put on. I couldn’t relate, but I understood. It was part of life, not necessarily my reality, but the reality for people I knew and called friend. That’s what Reasonable Doubt meant to me; between the tales of crack sales and Big Willie-isms, there were snapshots of sidewalks I strolled and the playgrounds where I honed my skills. We had entered the age of the rap “kingpins” and that attracted the nickel and dime or wholesale hustlers I knew. They gravitated towards the Nas Escobar and Frank White personas Nas and Biggie cultivated, but something about Reasonable Doubt and Jay-Z didn’t seem too outsized. Of course there were fabrications, but there was a view to the hustle that offered a hint of authenticity, that showed the experiences were either lived or witnessed from close proximity.
The Roc-a-Fella story of him, Dame Dash, Kareem “Biggs” Burke started their own label after no one wanted to give Jay a deal fed into the lure. He was a hustler, surrounded by hustlers, doing what hustlers do in the face of the establishment. We know how things ended, but what they built became a blueprint for future business models. They came into the game as moguls, not the net worth associated with the title, but the attitude and approach to ownership and value of intellectual property that took many of us years to catch up to.
The homies asked me to bring the CD over after a few days, but I was reluctant; I felt like the album was made for me and their choice was made when we listened to Nas for hours on end. It took some prodding, but I took the album and everyone finally got what I knew when we took that ride, Jay-Z was dope! Additional copies were purchased by the crew and my CD was secured with my growing collection, being cared for like the classic it would go on to be. Seemingly, it took years for everyone to catch up, Reasonable Doubt had a slow burn to platinum and classic status. It took time for Jay to insinuate himself between Biggie and Nas as a titan. He famously alluded to the delayed reaction to his debut on “Hard Knock Life” with the lines, "I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y'all lamed out/Didn't really appreciate it, ‘til the second one came out", on Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, the album that will turn Jay into a star.
I was sold from the door. Like millions of others, I bought the subsequent albums, which were coming yearly. Even as he’s advanced as a businessman and public figure, I still wait for new Jay verses like it’s ’96 or ’97, largely because the climate in which Jay-Z first appeared has degenerated and the feeling Hip-Hop gave me for a large portion of my life comes far and few between. I remember ’96. I remember Reasonable Doubt, It Was Written, Ironman, ATLiens, The Score, Tupac releasing All Eyez on Me, getting shot, his death and then the Makaveli album coming out. I was transitioning into manhood and these albums (and more) were my soundtrack. I spent that summer working out, preparing to play college basketball (and go to college), doing things I had no business doing. It was also the last summer before my grandmother passed that fall.
Life would never be the same. For many reasons.