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Hip Hop: A Look Back At Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt Classic 20 Years Later

There comes a time in every journalist career where they get to cover an event, person or in this case, a feeling.

Situations that happened 20 years ago are hard to remember but I remember my first listening of Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt. To be able to write about it 20 years later, I can’t express the emotions that ran thru my body when I got the thumbs up to publish my thoughts.

The only thing missing was an actual sit down with Jay himself but we all know how he is with the media. Jay, if you happen to come across this, thank you for providing us with a classic. Let’s begin.

The lore of some albums come and go. The anticipation gets so big but the letdown is even bigger. When was the last time you brought or downloaded an album and just sat back, zoned out and thoroughly enjoyed the music?

I know, it’s been a while for me as well. I remember when I first heard  “Reasonable Doubt”. I was a sophomore (heading to my junior year) at Shaw University in Raleigh NC taking summer courses. I remember walking into my friend Quan’s room and eyeballing his CD collection and stopping dead in my tracks as my eyes hit Reasonable Doubt.

I heard a few of Jay’s songs before but I had no idea he dropped a solo album.

Quan was already heavy into doing something non hip-hop related (I can’t remember) so I had to do what I had to do. Let’s just say 10 minutes later I was in MY dorm room listening to HIS Reasonable Doubt CD (Quan if you’re reading this I love you bro). I had the room to myself which was perfect, that way I wasn’t forced to ignore anyone.

Reasonable Doubt album was, is and forever will be my favorite. It’s funny because at the time the Source Magazine was the Bible for Hip Hop and if the Source gave you 3 mics or less, it was considered trash, but they gave Reasonable Doubt 4 mics instead of the necessary 5, marking it just short of a classic.

It’s weird how fate has a way of stepping in.

The magazine ranked it short of a classic but the masses and time proved that the Source was wrong.

I got to the room, lit up some substance, walked over to the stereo, pressed play and Hip Hop forever changed for me.

You Can’t Knock The Hustle (Featuring Mary J Blige)

The Intro to this song may have came from Scarface but it fit this album so perfectly. Jay told you how the game was in his heyday and how the system sees us as nothing more than environmental lab-rats.

But the pure beauty in these lyrics is how he used the Intro song to show you what some are still trying to figure out– how Jay is so clever.

While other rappers may use a line like: “I’m the best rapper in the United States”, Jay took it to another level as he said: ” Can a nigga see me/ Got the Us Open/ Advantage Jigga/ Serve like Sampras” , subtle lines but different than the norm.

He was speaking to the hustlers who side-eyed Jay for leaving the game behind to focus on a legit lifestyle. Our community didn’t care about tennis and while that line  may have went over many heads it showed what we were in store for later on.

Politics As Usual

To fully understand this album you either had to be living that life or lived around it in some sort of capacity.

To the average ear, it was rap lyrics but to those of us that had first hand knowledge, this was the Bible. When Jay attacked this smooth beat we felt the plain in his voice with lines like:

Y’all feel a nigga’s struggle y’all think a nigga love to
hustle behind the wheel tryin to escape my trouble
kids stop they greetin me I’m talkin sweet to keys
Cursin the very God that bought this wreath to be

In our environment life is short, in can be taken from you any second. When I hear this song, it makes me think of escaping the hood, something I was able to do but that mentality is still embedded in my soul.

Brooklyn’s Finest (Featuring Notorious Big)

Do I need to type anything here explaining this song? A classic. Jay and BIG, both from Brooklyn took turns destroying this beat. What made this song so great was the back and forth of each verse.

At times, each rapper started their verse off with the last word the previous MC ended theirs with. That is MCing 101 when doing a collab. If I had to choose a favorite bar from this song it would have to go to Big:

Pillow case to your face make the shell muffle
Shoot your daughter in the calf muscle
Fuck a tussle, nickel-plated
Sprinkle coke on the floor, make it drug related, most hate it

I still laugh when that part plays. No fighting, shoot your daughter in the calf muscle. That is hilarious. This reminds me of a lunchroom freestyle session with two friends going back and forth and a third banging on the table.

Dead President’s II

There are references in certain songs that make you stop the music and think. You need that quiet time to reflect on what was said. When I first heard Dead Presidents II I was in awe. I listened to this song five times straight to make sure I got the meaning.

The last time the weed was fully in my system by then and that song took me back. Jay’s style and storytelling was in full bloom, especially in the first verse when he talks about seeing his friend in the hospital after he was shot:

Hospital days, reflectin when my man laid up
On the Uptown high block he got his side sprayed up
I saw his life slippin, this is a minor set back
Yo, still in all we livin, just dream about the get back
That made him smile though his eyes said, “Pray for me”
I’ll do you one better and slay these niggaz faithfully
Murder is a tough thing to digest, it’s a slow process
and I ain’t got nothin but time

Read those bars over and over. If you ever lost a friend or loved one to violence then you understand why I love this song. He told his boy to just dream about the get back which made him smile, since he couldn’t talk his eyes said pray for me.

Jay told him “I got you, no need for praying I will kill them for you”.


It was the way that he said it that makes Jay so remarkable. When the average rapper would have said it the way I broke it down Jay said it between the lines.

Feeling It

Don’t let the smooth jazz track fool you.

Feeling It is perfect. As I stated earlier I was in a zone, thanks to the substance flowing through my body at the time. This song is basically a relaxed Jay talking trash to everyone, but mostly the rappers he viewed as peers:

Even if it ain’t sunny hey I ain’t complaining
I’m in the rain doing a buck-forty hydroplaning, what shorty
(Where you disappear to son?)
Maintaining putting myself in a position most of these rappers ain’t in

It’s funny because 20 years later look at where he is now. Then to finish the song he tells where the inspiration came from.

OK I’m gettin weeded now I know I’m contradicting myself
Look I don’t need that now
It just once in a blue moon when there’s nothin to do and
The tension’s too thick for my sober mind to cut through
I get to zoning me and the chick on the island and we’re bonin
I free my mind sometimes I here myself moanin
Take one more toke and I leave that weed alone man
It got me going shit


If I could write the review of this song in caps I would. This is the song for hustlers who can’t express their feelings. This is everyday life for those grinding on the block trying to get ahead and survive.

This is my song.

Jay completely went bonkers here but that 2nd verse, that 2nd verse might be one of the best verses ever recited in hip hop history. Like I said earlier I’m on a word limit with half the album to go. Just read the verse:

We used to fight for building blocks
Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killing
The closest of friends when we first started
But grew apart as the money grew, and soon grew black-hearted
Thinking back when we first learned to use rubbers
He never learned so in turn I’m kidnapping his baby’s mother
My hand around her collar, feeding her cheese
She said the taste of dollars was shitty so I fed her fifties
About his whereabouts I wasn’t convinced
So I kept feeding her money ’til her shit started to make sense
Who could ever forsee, we used to stay up all night at slumber parties
now I’m trying to rock this bitch to sleep
All the years we were real close
Now I see his fears through her tears, know she’s wishing we were still
Don’t cry, it’s the be
In time, I’ll take away your miseries and make ’em mine, D’Evils…

What. Did you get that? Did you understand what that man spoke about? The game will turn friends into enemies and force you to do the unthinkable like kidnapping his kids mother.

This is Kans vs Able Marcy Projects style.

22 Two’s

In Hip Hop, wordplay is everything unless you represent today’s current state of rappers. It’s hard for these guys to put a complex bar together yet alone great wordplay. When you first heard 22 Two’s how many of you backtracked the song and actually counted the amount of times he said two?

It’s cool to raise your hand, I did it at least three times in one sitting. Jay has always stated that he doesn’t write down his rhymes but it’s okay Hov to admit you did it with this one, how could you not when rapping like this:

I dip, speak quicker than you ever seen
adminster pain, next the minister’s screamin your name
At your wake as I peak in, look in your casket
feelin sarcastic, “Look at him, still sleepin”
You never ready, forever petty minds stay petty
Mines thinkin longevity until I’m seventy
Livin heavenly, fuck, felony after felony, what?
Nigga ya broke, what the fuck you gon’ tell me?

Classic Hov all the way.

Can I Live

Life is hard and the people we have in our inner circle can stress us the hell out. But for a hustler, stress come with the territory. On Can I Live Jay talks about the pitfalls of trying to live his life under the watchful eyes of the streets.

I stepped it up another level, meditated like a buddhist
Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous, dreams of
gettin cream let’s do this, against T-D-S
So I keep one eye open like, C-B-S, ya see me
stressed right? Can I live?

There is no rest when dealing with the jungle.

Ain’t No Nigga (Featuring Foxy Brown)

Ain’t No Nigga is one of those songs that takes a moment to grow on you. Up until this point everything was gritty and thought-provoking but Jay put his toes in the water and went after a semi radio hit.

Nowadays, you can tell when an artist goes after the clubs but Ain’t No Nigga did it in such a sneaky and clever way, you never saw it coming.

The song featured the vocals of one Foxy Brown, a young Brooklyn female MC. Whether Jay wrote her lyrics or not she still came off as arrogant and with as much bravado as the man on the song with her.

This was a classic song for hustlers and their women as Jay spit:

I keep you fresher than the next bitch
no need..for you to ever sweat the next bitch
..with speed I make the best bitch see the exit..indeed
you gotta know your thoroughly respected by me

From this song to Beyonce, what a come up.

Friend Or Foe

You ever wanted to know how a conversation should go down before a person runs up and tires to rob you? Lets say you get a minute or two to talk to the person before he does the do. What would you say? Well Jay gives us a verse with some classic lines:

let me guess, they said it was money round here
and the rest is me stoppin you from gettin it, correct?
sorry to hear that, my guess is you got work at the hotel
i’ll take care of that , you’ll see, now please
give me the room key
you’re twitchin, don’t do that, you makin me nervous
my crew, well, they do pack, them niggas is murderous
so would ya, please put your hand back in sight
they don’t like to see me nervous you can understand that, right?
you draw, better be picasso, y’know the best
cause if this is not so, ah, god bless

Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, ever come around here no more.

Coming of Age (Featuring Memphis Bleek)

No matter where you grew up, you always have that younger dude where the respect was mutual. For Jay that guy was Bleek. When Jay released his first solo album there was a great conversation between him and the youngster where the older Jay tried to let the young thug know how the game is played:

[JZ] Hey fella I been watchin you clockin
[MB] Who me holdin down this block it ain’t nothin
You the man nigga now stop frontin
[JZ] Hahahh I like your style
[MB] Nah, I like YO’ style
[JZ] Let’s drive around awhile
[MB] Cool nigga
[JZ] Here’s a thou’
[MB] A G? I ride witchu for free
I want the longterm riches and bitches
[JZ] Have it all; now listen to me
You let them other niggaz get the name, skip the fame
Ten thou’ or a hundred G keep yo’ shit the same
[MB] On the low?
[JZ] Yeah, the only way to blow
You let your shit bubble quietly
[JZ] Hey keep your cool
The only way to peep a fool is let him show his hand
Then you play your cards
[MB] Then he through dealin I understand
[JZ] Don’t blow your dough on hotties
[MB] The only thing I got in this world is my word and my nuts
and won’t break em for nobody!
[JZ] Hah, I like resume, pick a day, you can start
[MB] From now until death do us part…

This may have been fiction but look at their bond today. Loyalty

Cashmere Thoughts

If there was one song Reasonable Doubt could do without, this is it. Now it’s not terrible and if you have followed Jay he always regrets one on every album.

But here is the brilliance of Cashmere Thoughts.

Where other rappers have strayed from their persona to sell records Jay entered the game like this. Remember he thinks he is IceBerg Slim baby:

Uhh, I talk jewels and spit diamonds, all cherry
like a hymen, when I’m rhymin with remarkable timin
Caviar and silk dreams, my voice is linen
Spittin venom up in the, minds of young women

Pimp on Hov.

Bring It On (Featuring Jaz-O and Sauce Money)

This was to be the future of Roc-A-Fella Records, if this track was the launching pad they were off to a great start.

Jay enlisted two other Brooklyn rappers in his mentor Jaz-O and friend Sauce Money to give what was to be a proclamation of sorts.

Its hard to figure who came best on this track as all three equally spit hot bars but since this is the Jay article lets take a look at some memorable HOV lines:

Can’t do for dolo, had to turn away when Tony killed Manolo
That’s real, mixed feelings like a mulatto
Thug thought he was O.G. Bobby Johnson
I played him like Benny Blanco, mano a mano
you ain’t ready, I find no trigger straight up shoot my guns
horizontal, get your weight up, I am
two point two pounds you’re barely a hundred and twenty-five grams
Wouldn’t expect y’all to understand this money

Once again this is 95-96 Jay, not the one that we know now that has that legit money. This is what makes him one of, if not the best. He never changed from the beginning. He came in the game searching for that top spot.


This is how you end an album. I love D’Evils, it’s a monster of a song that brings back so many memories, good and bad but this ish here. Regrets stays on constant repeat. Jay is at his finest as he talks about what many of us will never admit, the pitfalls of our decisions. I wish I could put the entire song up but I will give lines from each verse as this is Jay’s most complete song on the album:

Verse 1

Coppers was watchin us through nighttime binoculars
This time they got us on tape, exchangin dope for dollars
Make me wanna, holler back at the crib in the sauna
Prayin my people bailed out like Time/Warner
Awaitin call, from his kin not the coroner
Phone in my hand, nervous confined to a corner

Verse 2

As sure as this, Earth is turning souls burning
in search of higher learning turning in every direction seeking direction
My moms cryin cause her insides are dyin
her son tryin her patience, keep her heart racin
A million beats a minute, I know I push you to your limit
but it’s this game love, I’m caught up all in it

Verse 3

Remember Newton, mutual friend well me and him feudin
On your life I tried to talk to him
But you know niggaz, think they guns can stop four niggaz
Frontin like they’re, Big Willie but really owe niggaz
Hoe niggaz, this year I’m sho’ niggaz think I’m slippin
I’m bought to send you a roommate, no bullshittin
but my hustle’s goin too well to hit him
You was right niggaz want you to be miserable wit em
Anyway, I ain’t tryin to hear it, I think I’m touched
this whole verse I been talkin to your spirit, a little too much

The first verse was Jay talking about a drug deal going bad where he had to flee the scene leaving his friend behind. The second was the heartache that a mother faces knowing her son is in the game and the third is my personal favorite.

Here, Jay is speaking to the soul of an deceased friend as he contemplates killing a mutual friend turned rival. Powerful.

This article was in the making the day I heard this album 20 years ago. I know some that still won’t give it it’s proper due and that’s your opinion that you’re entitled to but for me, there’s no competition (maybe Illmatic).

I won’t get too much into my personal life but Reasonable Doubt was the soundtrack and maybe that’s why it reaches my soul like no other.

I’m glad the Source didn’t give it 5 mics to begin with, it made people appreciate it more. Thank you Jay Z for providing me and many others with a timeless classic. 20 years old.

Long live Reasonable Doubt.



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Mark Wilson
Mark began his writing career for Yahoo then Rant Sports before deciding to head out on his own at TruluvSports. Now, he is lead NBA writer as well as co-owner of Inscribermag. His topic ranges from sports, Lifestyle, Sex, live streams and more. Mark's work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Bleacher Report, Fox Sports, MSN, Yahoo Sports and many others. No one is perfect but he does his best to provide fans with an honest opinion and not the saturated, watered-down sports and news everyone dishes out.