Reasonable Doubt - A Look Back to What Started It All

An artist’s debut album is considered the most important project of their careers. It’s the moment artists work towards their whole lives and it can determine the success of their career afterward. Jay-Z has been a veteran in the rap game for quite some time now when he released his debut Reasonable Doubt in 1996 not many people could imagine the type of impact this body of work would have on rap music and the artist himself.


The album begins with one of its singles “Can’t Knock the Hustle” featuring one of my favorite R&B artists of all-time Mary J Blige. It was a great song to set the tone for the rest of the album especially with the beginning skit that takes inspiration from Scarface the movie. Jay-Z is letting the listeners know that he’s leaving the street life, for a more lucrative hustle in the rap business.

Prior to releasing his debut album, Jay-Z was a known drug dealer in his neighborhood, the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York. He had a passion for rap and was known as one of the most skilled MCs in his area, however, due to a lack of success in trying to get a major record deal and the fact that he was a making a lot of money in the streets, he put his rap dreams on the backburner.

“Dead Presidents II” is a standout track on this album and arguably of all Jay-Z’s career so far. Jay-Z paints the picture of street life, all the glories, and riches, but also the negative components like envy and death. This record is an embodiment of the hustler, entrepreneurial energy Jay-Z delivers throughout the album.

This entrepreneurial spirit was garnered as a street hustler.but was put to test in the traditional business world when he partnered with Dame Dash and Kareem Biggs to launch Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995. Nobody offered him a  record a deal at the time, so in true entrepreneur manner, they did it all themselves and created a platform to launch Jay-Z’s debut album.  

Jay-Z with Roc-A-Fella partners, Kareem Biggs (left) and Dame Dash (right)

His superior rap skills were on full display throughout the album with wordplays, similes, and metaphors littered in tracks like D’Evils. He’s also gone bar for bar with one of the best rappers of all time, Notorious BIG in “Brooklyn’s Finest”. Most impressive is the fact that Jay-Z didn’t write any of his raps. Dahoud Drien, one of the producers on the album remembered this when they recorded Can’t Knock the Hustle.

“[Jaÿ-Z] sat up there, listened to the beat. He don’t write no rhymes down, no paper. He’s sitting there, nodding his head for a little bit. You think he’s listening to the beat, but he’s just writing the rhymes in his head at the same time. And then he goes into the vocal booth and knocks it out like a champ.”

The quality of lyricism and storytelling on this album set the tone for all the future projects Jay-Z would later on release. Even though it was not the most commercially successful album of his illustrious career, it certainly paved the way. His future success in business, fashion, management, and his worldwide impact all stem from Reasonable Doubt.

Favorite Track: Can I Live

Favorite Bar:  “Nine-to-five is how you survive, I ain’t tryna survive, I’m tryna live it to the limit and love it a lot”


Written By: Ian-Maxime Lufitha