Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Album Review: "Reasonable Doubt" - Jay-Z (1996)

INTRODUCTION

There was a time when Jay-Z was actually one of the dopest hip-hop artists of all-time. I know that's hard to believe given the utter horsecrap he has been subjecting us to ever since his return from "retirement" in 2006, but it's the truth, and Reasonable Doubt exemplifies the fact that he was, in fact, good at one point.

Jay-Z dropped his debut album in the summer of 1996, one week before Nas came out with It Was Written. Unlike today when Jay could record himself going to the bathroom and have it go platinum, Reasonable Doubt didn't move one million units total until 2002. 

Think about that for a minute. While The Blueprint 3 went platinum in a month, it took Reasonable Doubt six years to achieve such a feat. What the hell is wrong with society?

Consisting of production from the likes of Ski, DJ Premier and Clark Kent, Reasonable Doubt dropped in a perfect climate: a time when Mafioso rap was at its peak. Naturally, given the overall theme of the album and the fact that The Notorious B.I.G. was still alive at the time, Jay recruited Biggie, his idol, to spit as a guest on one of the songs.

You wanna know the funniest thing about Reasonable Doubt? Supposedly, Jay-Z originally intended for it to be his only album.

Yeah; okay Jay.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Can't Knock The Hustle
After a weird ass intro that interpolates Scarface, we're treated to an exceedingly laid back--and awesome--beat by Knobody, and Jay-Z instantly finds a niche on it. Mary J. Blige is here, as well, and this was back when she was establishing herself as the best modern female R&B artist in the game; not like today when she records songs with freaking Drake. Jay would never make a track like this in 2013, and it's a shame, because it's blatantly obvious that these are the types of cuts that he is most suited for.

2. Politics as Usual
Ski makes pretty solid use of a Stylistics sample here, and Jay-Z cruises along the smooth production. Definitely good rider music. Jigga just does not make ish this like anymore, man.

3. Brooklyn's Finest
When you first look at the tracklist and see that B.I.G. is a guest here, you would probably anticipate a gangsta yet quietly dignified instrumental that Jay and Biggie would slowly drop boasts over in Mafioso fashion, right? Well, that's not what we get here. Instead, we get an uptempo Clark Kent beat that sounds like it could have been of better use in Mario Kart. For what it's worth, The Notorious B.I.G. came away with the better performance.

4. Dead Presidents II
If you're wondering if there was an original "Dead Presidents," there was, and it was the first single released in promotion of Reasonable Doubt. However, it was replaced by "Dead Presidents II" with the same Ski production and different lyrics. This is considered by many to be the best song in Jigga's extensive catalog, and while I don't necessarily agree (you'll see why fairly soon), it's still pretty damn good. The beat also seems to be a staple on underground rappers' mixtapes. One thing I've always wondered, though: why is the Nas vocal sample on the hook edited?

5. Feelin' It
For some reason, this is the record off of Reasonable Doubt that still gets radio airplay. It's truly hard for me to understand why, but maybe that's just me, because this was never one of my favorite cuts on the album, due much in part to the rather dull instrumental provided by Ski. Also, what the hell happened to Mecca after this? Not that I really care all that much; just curious.

6. D'Evils
The first of three DJ Premier productions on the project, and this is quite easily the best of the three. This song is awesome, Premo's dark and thought-provoking beat giving Jay-Z the perfect backdrop to drop his bleak rhymes about the evils of the game. One of the best tracks on the album and one of the best records Jay has ever done.

7. 22 Two's
Jay-Z starts off "22 Two's" by interpolating A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?" (which he then uses as the hook) over a pretty solid beat by Ski, leading into a freaking great performance by Jigga on the mic. Jay also took a shot at the west coast with his "too much west coast dick lickin'" rhyme. I'm sure that didn't make 2Pac feel any better about him.

8. Can I Live
Remember earlier when I told you that you'd soon see why I don't think "Dead Presidents II" is the best song in Jay-Z's catalog? Well, this is why. "Can I Live" is superior to anything else Jigga has ever put out. So, all of you "Niggas In Paris" groupies out there, blast this track in your whip and see if you change your opinion. If not, well, you know how they say there is no such thing as a wrong opinion? Well, if you don't change your mind after hearing this, then your opinion would be wrong, kind of like saying LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan. Technically, it's an opinion, but...

9. Ain't No Nigga
This cut sounds unbelievably goofy, especially after following the austere "Can I Live," but this actually isn't half-bad. Big Jaz, Jay's old mentor (they now have beef and, as far as I am aware, haven't resolved it), laces the unorthodox instrumental. Foxy Brown drops a verse on here, too, and she sounds surprisingly solid (this helped lead to her debut album which then led to...well...not much else). While "Ain't No Nigga" may have been corny within the context of Reasonable Doubt, it works.

10. Friend or Foe
I've always wished this song was longer. Much longer. This is the second DJ Premier beat, and it is very pleasing, regardless of the fact that it is just a simple Brother To Brother loop. Also, does anyone find it funny how Jigga's flow on this is fundamentally identical to the delivery that DMX would eventually trademark?

11. Coming of Age
Jay-Z's protégé (well, he was back then, anyway) Memphis Bleek makes his debut here, and while he didn't sound extraordinary, you could certainly hear his potential. You really have to wonder what happened to what looked like a promising career for Bleek. Anyway, this song is just terrific, probably the most overlooked track on Reasonable Doubt. Props to Clark Kent for what was a really engaging, soulful instrumental.

12. Cashmere Thoughts
Seriously; what in the world happened to Jay's ear for beats? You listen to the production on Reasonable Doubt, and then you hear the type of crap he raps on today, and you wonder exactly where things went wrong. Clark Kent's instrumental on "Cashmere Thoughts" is a prime example of one of those fluid, polished beats that exhibits how good of an ear Jigga used to have. It is the definition of a head-nodder.

13. Bring It On
The final Premo production on the album, and while it's decent, it's very repetitive, and it just isn't on the same level as the other two beats he laid down. Big Jaz joins in to spit this time around. Sauce Money drops a verse, too, although the only thing I remember from his rhymes is the disgusting "get fucked with pistols, just to see my shit discharge pus" line. I mean, did we really need to hear that?

14. Regrets
Some guy by the name of Peter Panic is on the boards here, and he crafts a very introspective, organ-driven instrumental for Jay-Z. The best part of this song is the hook. Other than that, it's nothing more than adequate. I will say, though, that "Regrets" characterizes a point in time when Jay actually used to spit with feeling and emotion. Now? Don't even get me started...

15. Can I Live II
This wasn't on the original pressings of Reasonable Doubt, but if you come across this album at the store nowadays, "Can I Live II" will probably be on it, so I may as well review it, right? Not that there's much of a point in doing so, because the mere idea of Jigga even thinking about trying to come up with a sequel to the O.G. version of "Can I Live" is just blasphemy. Still, he did it, and while this track isn't terrible, it's not that good, and the original makes it sound that much worse. Oh, and Memphis Bleek is here again. You probably don't care, though, nor should you, because this song was destined for failure the second it was given its title anyway.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I'll say it again: what the hell happened Jay? Reasonable Doubt is a surefire classic, far superior to anything Jay-Z has put out since. There are only a couple of songs on here that I don't really mess with, and even those tracks are better than the garbage that Jigga saturates the radio with in 2013.

I can't just blame Jay, though, as this was obviously a different time in his life. He was on the come-up back then, and, naturally, he was hungrier, still searching for that big payday and for acceptance within the hip-hop industry. That sentence looks awfully funny at the current point in time, but back then, it was true.

Jay-Z collected a bunch of instrumentals that suited him impeccably on Reasonable Doubt, each one allowing him to express a different type of emotion. It really makes you wonder why in the world he has resorted to relying on the likes of Kanye West and Timbaland to provide him with production when he can easily hit up DJ Premier and probably have the man record an entire album with him. 

That, and what was with Jigga's outright refusal to work with Pete Rock up until a lone track on Watch The Throne? Now I guess I shouldn't say "outright refusal," because I don't know if Jay specifically did not want any Pete Rock beats, but what else am I supposed to think? I mean, given Jay-Z's clout, you would think that Pete Rock would send him 50 beats after one simple phone call, so why didn't he get in touch with the only producer who is better than Premo? 

All of that said, it's really a moot point, and it doesn't make much sense to give it much more thought. We never got to hear Jigga over such productions in Pete Rock's prime. That's that, and it truly is a dire shame.

Almost as much of a shame as what has happened to Jay's career. He went from being one of the best hip-hop artists to ever walk the face of the earth to becoming, let's face it, an absolute joke. There is absolutely no way you can convince me that anything he has released after The Black Album is any good, save for a few individual songs here and there (like "Kingdom Come" for example; that Just Blaze instrumental...).

So it goes, I guess.

TOP TRACKS

1. Can I Live
2. D'Evils
3. Coming of Age
4. Can't Knock The Hustle
5. Dead Presidents II

2 comments:

  1. EPMD 'It's My Thing' sampled 'Seven Minutes of Funk' wayyy before Jaz-O used it for 'Aint No Nigga.'
    Anyways RD, Blueprint and The Black Album are far and away Jay's best projects. I liked American Gangster though so I guess we disagree there. And yes MJ is the greatest ever but who knows where LeBron will end up. If he stays healthy he could definitely make it a 50/50 argument for the 'who's better' debate. Also Preemo > Pete Rock. GANG STARR!

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