Reasonable Doubt is the debut album by East Coast rapper Jay-Z. It was released on June 25 1996 by Roc-A-Fella Records in the United States and Northwestside Records in the United Kingdom. The album features production from DJ Premier, Ski and Clark Kent, and guest vocals by Memphis Bleek, Sauce Money and The Notorious B.I.G. It peaked at #23 on the Billboard 200, received platinum status in 2002,[1] and sold 1.4 million copies as of 2006.[2] Four singles were released, the most popular being "Ain't No Nigga" and "Can't Knock the Hustle". Both reached the top 40 in the United Kingdom, but were less popular in the United States; the former reached #50 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the latter reached #73.

Reasonable Doubt received strong critical reviews and has been heralded as Jay-Z's "crowning achievement", a seminal work[3] and an "undisputed classic".[4][5] Reasonable Doubt received a "5 Mics" rating from The Source and five stars from All Music Guide,[6] the highest ratings issued by each publication. The Source ranks it among the top 100 albums of all time,[7] Blender ranks it as one of the 500 best albums of all time,[8] and Rolling Stone ranks it at 248 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[9] Reasonable Doubt and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... is considered to have popularized Mafioso rap and "revolutionized the hip hop scene".[10]



Shawn Carter grew up in Brooklyn's Marcy Houses, a New York housing project. Shawn's father abandoned the family when he was 11, the first of many traumas that led him to write raps.[11] In his neighborhood, Carter was known as "Jazzy", a nickname that developed into his stage name, "Jay-Z". The moniker is a homage to his musical mentor Jaz-O and to the J-Z subway lines that stop by Marcy Avenue. Fellow Brooklynite Jaz-O gave Jay-Z his first break by recruiting him on the 1989 song "Hawaiian Sophie". Jay-Z appeared on two more Jaz-O songs in the next year, but when Jaz-O was dropped from his label EMI, Jay-Z began supporting himself by dealing drugs.[11] He continued to pursue a rap career, however, and appeared on two songs from Original Flavor's 1993 album Beyond Flavor. Jay-Z then caught Big Daddy Kane's attention and began touring with him; they collaborated on Kane's 1994 posse cut "Show & Prove".[11]

Despite the exposure he received from Kane, Jay-Z was still without a record deal. He began selling tapes from his car with help from friend Damon Dash.[12] The success of his street-level marketing led to a deal with Payday Records, which released his first solo single, "In My Lifetime" and its B-side "I Can't Get wid Dat". In an unconventional move, Jay-Z then spurned the record contract he had long sought and left Payday Records to form his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, with Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke. Jay-Z later explained that he thought he could do a better job of marketing his records on his own:


[Payday] eventually signed me to a deal, but were acting shady the whole time, like they didn't know how to work a record or something," says Jay. "The things that they were setting up for me I could have done myself. They had me traveling places to do instores, and my product wasn't even available in the store. We shot one video, but when the time came for me to do the video for the second single, I had to be cut out. They gave me the money and I started my own company. There was a little arguing back and forth, but our conflict finally got resolved. The bottom line was they wasn't doing their job, so I had to get out of there.[12]

Jay-Z rented a small, cheap office for Roc-A-Fella Records on John Street in one of the "dreariest parts of the busiest city in the world".[12] Jay-Z and his compatriots thought of their low-rent headquarters as a "starting point" that would eventually lead them to Manhattan.[12] In 1995 and early 1996, Jay-Z appeared on records by Big L and Mic Geronimo, further raising his profile. At this point, he was still considered an "underground"[13] rapper with a "new jack" style.[14]

Recording sessions

Reasonable Doubt was recorded in Manhattan's D&D Studios and mixed at Platinum Island, but its beats were formed elsewhere. Knobody produced "Can't Knock the Hustle" at his mother's home in 1994 and Ski produced "Feelin' It" and "Politics as Usual" while recording with Camp Lo.[15] The recording sessions were generally dominated by competition; Ski and Clark Kent created similar beats for "Politics as Usual", but Ski submitted his to Jay-Z first causing his to appear on the album.[15] "Brooklyn's Finest" was a competitive, though friendly battle between Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G. in which Jay-Z tried proving that he is of Biggie's caliber, while Biggie tried brushing his rhymes off as insignificant.[15] Although the rappers had already met on the set for the "Dead Presidents II" music video, they discovered that neither write down their rhymes while recording.[15] The recording of "Brooklyn's Finest" spanned two months and moved from D&D Studios to Giant Studios where the Clark Kent-sung chorus was recorded.[15] The studio sessions affected Jay-Z mentally: as he told Rolling Stone, "The studio was like a psychiatrist's couch for me".[9]


Lyrical content

Reasonable Doubt is generally classified as Mafioso rap because of Jay-Z's prevalent references to crime within his songs. Aside from the lyrical showcase on "22 Two's", the discussion of relationship infidelities on "Ain't No Nigga" and braggadocios rhymes on "Brooklyn' Finest", the album's subject matter exclusively deals with Jay-Z's past criminal lifestyle. All Music Guide's Steve Huey describes him as a "a street hustler from the projects who rapped about what he knew—and he was very, very good at it...detailing his experiences on the streets with disarming honesty".[6] Multiple aspects of this lifestyle are explored: "Can't Knock the Hustle" details Jay-Z's hustling talent, "Cashmere Thoughts" and "Dead Presidents II" explain his financial goals and other tracks like "D'evils" and "Regrets" detail how hustling negatively affects the mind. Huey summarizes the album's subject matter saying:

He's cocky bordering on arrogant, but playful and witty, and exudes an effortless, unaffected cool throughout. And even if he's rapping about rising to the top instead of being there, his material obsessions are already apparent [...] the album's defining cut might [...] be the brief "22 Two's," which not only demonstrates Jay-Z's extraordinary talent as a pure freestyle rapper, but also preaches a subtle message through its club hostess: Bad behavior gets in the way of making money. Perhaps that's why Jay-Z waxes reflective, not enthusiastic, about the darker side of the streets.
—Steve Huey, [6]

Similarly, David Drake of Stylus Magazine considers the lyrics on Reasonable Doubt to be characterized by "gritty realism".[16] Nonetheless, Jay-Z utilizes puns and other forms of word play to a comedic affect such as when he tells an anecdote in "D'evils"[17]:

The closest of friends when we first started
But grew apart as the money grew, and soon grew black-hearted
Thinkin' back when we first learned to use rubbers
He never learned so in turn I'm kidnappin' 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 feedin' her money 'til her shit started to make sense/cents


The beats on Reasonable Doubt were provided by already established East Coast hip hop producers, including DJ Premier, Clark Kent and Ski. The production relies on soul, funk and jazz samples of artists such as Isaac Hayes, the Ohio Players and Ahmad Jamal. The refrains of a few songs contain vocal samples of rappers including Nas, Fat Joe and Snoop Dogg. All Music Guide's Steve Birchmeier describes this production style as representing "the pre-gangsta era, a foregone era when samples fueled the beats and turntablism supplied the hooks" which "sets Reasonable Doubt apart from Jay-Z's later work".[18]

"Can't Knock the Hustle" contains a "silky smooth"[19] atmospheric beat layered with hard-hitting programmed drums and a xylophone loop. "Politics as Usual" has an R&B sound with its softer drums and sample of "Hurry Up This Way Again" by The Stylistics.[19] "Brooklyn's Finest" contrasts heavily with the first two tracks; it features an upbeat honky tonk piano loop and smooth drums sampled from "Ecstasy" by the Ohio Players. "Dead Presidents" contains a down tempo beat composed of three samples: the drums from "Oh My God (remix)" by A Tribe Called Quest, the melody and piano loop from "A Garden of Peace" by Lonnie Liston Smith and a vocal sample from "The World Is Yours" by Nas. According to IGN's Spence D., "Ski brings back the stripped down piano fill style lending the track a late night jazz vibe" on "Feelin' It".[19] "D'evils" features a downtrodden piano loop sampled from Allen Toussaint's "Go Back Home" and vocal samples from LL Cool J's "I Shot Ya (remix)" and Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was the Case". "22 Two's" has a "mournful jazz inclined groove" that prominently features string instruments.[19]

"Can I Live" samples Isaac Hayes' cover of "The Look of Love" creating a slow beat with a mix of percussion, brass and string instruments. "Ain't No Nigga" contains a quick funky beat that samples the melody and drums from "Seven Minutes of Funk" by The Whole Darn Family. "Friend or Foe" follows with a slower funky beat that contains heavy use of brass and a programmed drum loop. "Coming of Age" contains a Clark Kent-produced beat "built around a low-end piano fill, thumping quiet storm bass, and swirling synth".[19] "Cashmere Thoughts" samples the guitar loop from Bohannon's "Save Their Souls" and adds claps and other sound effects. "Bring It On" contains a down tempo slow beat that features a string instrument loop and programmed drums. "Regrets" is driven by a jazzy sample from "It's So Easy Loving You" by Earl Klugh and Hubert Laws, as well its heavy triangle use and acoustic guitar loop.


Four singles—"Dead Presidents", "Ain't No Nigga", "Can't Knock the Hustle" and "Feelin' It"—were released in promotion of Reasonable Doubt. "Dead Presidents" features lyrics about illegally acquiring money and a somber Ski-produced beat that samples Lonnie Liston Smith's "A Garden of Peace". Its chorus, sampled from Nas' "The World Is Yours",[20] illustrates the song's lyrical thesis and was cited throughout the Nas vs. Jay-Z feud. "Dead Presidents" is the only single that did not chart, but it was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.[1] "Dead Presidents II" appears on Reasonable Doubt, while the original appears on a single and on a music video directed by Abdul Malik Abbott. "Dead Presidents II" has the same beat and chorus as the original, but its lyrics are different.

The second single, "Ain't No Nigga", features female rapper Foxy Brown. The song details a love relationship between Jay-Z and the materialistic Foxy Brown. The chorus interpolates "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)" by The Four Tops. The funky Big Jaz-produced beat sounds like EPMD's "It's My Thing" because both tracks sample "Seven Minutes of Funk" by The Whole Darn Family. "Ain't No Nigga" was the most commercially successful single, reaching #50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales.[21] Abdul Malik Abbot directed the song's music video.

"Can't Knock the Hustle", the third single, features soulful singing by Mary J. Blige. The song features Jay-Z bragging about the lifestyle he created by becoming a successful hustler. Produced by Knobody, the beat samples "Much Too Much" by Marcus Miller and "Fool's Paradise" by Meli'sa Morgan. It reached #73 on the Billboard Hot 100 making it the second most successful single on the album,[21] but it also reached #30 on the UK Singles Chart making it the most successful single in the United Kingdom.[22] A high budget music video directed by Hype Williams was made for "Can't Knock the Hustle".

The fourth and final single is the jazzy "Feelin' It". Guest singer Mecca sings the song's chorus and Jay-Z provides three verses about his lifestyle as a hustler. The song's piano-led beat is produced by Ski, who samples "Pastures" by jazz musician Ahmad Jamal. "Feelin' It" is the third most commercially successful single, reaching #79 on the Billboard Hot 100.[21] A low budget music video directed by Alan Ferguson was created for "Feelin' It".


Reasonable Doubt peaked at #23 on the Billboard 200, a rank lower than Jay-Z's future studio albums,[23] and it was certified platinum on February 7 2002.[1] The album received positive reviews from music critics. All Music Guide awarded it five stars,[6] Entertainment Weekly ranked it B+[24] and The Source gave it four mics, but later changed it to a full five mic rating. Jay-Z comments on this reconsideration on his song "44 Four's": "debut's a classic, first album four mics / should've got a five, but niggas lacked foresight". The Source also ranked the album as one of the 100 best rap albums of all time in 1998.[7] It also ranks on top albums lists by Rolling Stone (2003's "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time"),[9] Blender (2003's "500 CDs You Must Own Before You Die"),[8] Vibe (2004's "51 Albums Representing a Generation, a Sound and a Movement")[8] and Hip Hop Connection (2006's "The 100 Greatest Rap Albums 1995-2005").[8]

The acclaim that Reasonable Doubt receives can be attributed to its lyrics and beats. Lyrically, the album is praised for its honest and visual depictions of a hustler's life. Journalist Dream Hampton explains Jay-Z's lyrics saying: "MC's had definitely touched, you know, on hustling. But Jay, talks about what it can do to a person's inner peace, and what it can do to their mind".[11] All Music Guide's Steve Huey explains that the lyrical appeal lies within Jay's "effortless, unaffected cool" flow, "disarming honesty", and his knack for "writing some of the most acrobatic rhymes heard in quite some time".[6] Huey writes that this lyrical depth "helps Reasonable Doubt rank as one of the finest albums of New York's hip-hop renaissance of the '90s".[6] Fellow All Music Guide writer Jason Birchmeier claims that Jay-Z's lyrics are "candidly professional, but it's the producers more so than Jay-Z himself that make this album so untouchable".[18] Birchmeier remarks that the album "boasts an amazing roster of producers", and Steve Juon agrees describing Ski, Clark Kent and DJ Premier as "the best beatmakers in rap".[14] Juon also recognizes the album's lyrical strength and describes the album's reception saying:

[T]his is not only the definitive album from H to the Izzo's catalogue, it's one of the ten most important rap records of the entire 1990's. It's possible to live without having heard it - but after you do, you'll wonder how you ever managed without it. Even nearly six years later, this album stands up to the best production and strongest lyricism coming out of any rap around the globe. If an album could be said to have made corny MC's into Jay-Z haters, this is the one.
—Steve Juon, [14]


Subsequent Jay-Z albums

Despite being the lowest charting Jay-Z album,[23] it is generally considered his best record.[4] It differs from his future albums in its lack of "pop-crossover" songs and chart topping hits.[4] Also, future Jay-Z albums were mainly produced by The Hitmen, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. Shaheem Reid of MTV explains, "Reasonable Doubt might not have the radio hits or club bangers of many of his other albums, but it may be Jay at his most lyrical—and certainly at his most honest, according to him".[13] Jay-Z continued many themes from Reasonable Doubt on future albums; his second album In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 featured a song named "Friend or Foe '98" that continues the story from "Friend or Foe" and features similar DJ Premier production. Jay-Z's third album Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life contains a track named "Coming of Age (Da Sequel)". It features Memphis Bleek as does the original "Coming of Age", but it is produced by Swizz Beatz and its story changes drastically. Jay-Z feels that recreating Reasonable Doubt is challenging because he was living a different lifestyle with a completely different state of mind as he wrote the album.[13][20][25] Ian Cohen of Stylus Magazine states its significance in context of Jay-Z's other major albums, The Blueprint and The Black Album: "Reasonable Doubt was the come-up, The Blueprint was the comeback, and The Black Album may not have found him at his strongest lyrically, but it gained gravitas from meta-awareness and introspection".[26]

Mafioso rap/hip hop music

Less than two years before Reasonable Doubt's release, three popular Mafioso rap albums were released: Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, AZ's Doe or Die and Nas' It Was Written. Jay-Z then burst on to the scene with his debut album that further popularized a genre in which drinking Cristal, driving Lexus automobiles and living out the plots of films like Scarface was commonplace.[27] Stylus Magazine writer Evan McGarvey claims that hustler rap group The Clipse try emulating Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt sound on their 2006 song "We Got It for Cheap".[28]

Jay-Z's influence also extended to hip hop music in general. On the title track from The Game's 2005 album The Documentary, he references Reasonable Doubt as a classic album. Jean Grae also references the album on her 2004 song "Not like Me" by claiming that she would argue whether Reasonable Doubt or Nas' Illmatic is a better album. The album's vocals have been sampled on multiple occasions: Chubb Rock's "Survive", Termanology's "Watch How It Go Down", Apathy's "9 to 5" and Mary J. Blige's "Round and Round" contains samples from "D'evils" and De La Soul's "Shopping Bags (She Got from You)" contains samples from "Brooklyn's Finest".

It is often "considered one of hip-hop's landmark albums" according to Pitchfork Media's Ryan Schreiber.[25] It is compared to The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die and Nas' Illmatic as a classic album.[6][29][30]

10 Year Anniversary Concert

In 2006, Jay-Z performed the songs from Reasonable Doubt at the Radio City Music Hall to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. The concert's band included The Roots' drummer Questlove, the Illadelphonics, a 50-piece orchestra dubbed The Hustla's Symphony and Just Blaze, the performance's disc jockey.[13] It featured vocals from all original album guests except Mary J. Blige, The Notorious B.I.G. and Jaz-O. Beyoncé Knowles replaced Mary J. Blige for "Can't Knock the Hustle", Jay-Z rapped The Notorious B.I.G.'s verses on "Brooklyn's Finest" and Jaz-O's verse was left out of "Bring It On". While Blige was preparing for her Breakthrough Tour and The Notorious B.I.G. had died nine years before the concert, Jaz-O did not perform because of his feud with Jay-Z.[13] Jay-Z added a verse to "22 Two's" in which he says variations of the words "for/four" 44 times over the beat of "Can I Kick It?" by A Tribe Called Quest. Other alterations include Jay-Z changing a lyrical mention of Cristal to Dom Pérignon and Jay-Z's band "spruc[ing] up tracks like 'Regrets' to add more energy".[13] Celebrities including Alicia Keys, Young Jeezy, Jadakiss, Chris Tucker, Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony attended the concert. Three thousand tickets were put on sale; all were sold within two minutes according to Roc-A-Fella Records' website.[31]

Track listing

# Title Time Songwriters Producer(s) Guests(s) Sample(s)[32]
1 "Can't Knock the Hustle" 5:17 Shawn Carter
Jerome Foster
Marcus Miller
Dahoud Darien
Sean Cane for The Hitmen
Mary J. Blige
2 "Politics as Usual" 3:41 Cynthia Biggs
Shawn Carter
David Willis
3 "Brooklyn's Finest" 4:36 Leroy Bonner
Shawn Carter
Rodolfo Franklin
Marshall Jones
Ralph Middlebrooks
Walter Morrison
Andrew Noland
Marvin Pierce
Christopher Wallace
Greg Webster
Clark Kent The Notorious B.I.G.
4 "Dead Presidents II" 4:27 Shawn Carter
Nasir Jones
Peter Phillips
Lonnie Liston Smith
David Willis
5 "Feelin' It" 3:48 Shawn Carter
David Willis
Ski Mecca
6 "D'Evils" 3:31 Shawn Carter
Chris E. Martin
DJ Premier
7 "22 Two's" 3:29 Shawn Carter
David Willis
8 "Can I Live" 4:10 Burt Bacharach
Shawn Carter
Hal David
Irving Lorenzo
Irv Gotti
9 "Ain't No Nigga" 4:03 Jonathan Burks
Shawn Carter
Dennis Lambert
Inga Marchand
August Moon
Brian Potter
Tyrone Thomas
Big Jaz Foxy Brown
  • Contains a sample of "Seven Minutes of Funk" by The Whole Darn Family
  • Contains an interpolation of "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got)" by The Four Tops
10 "Friend or Foe" 1:49 Shawn Carter
Chris E. Martin
DJ Premier
  • Contains a sample of "Hey What's That You Say" by Wood, Brass & Steel
  • Contains a sample of "Hey What's That You Say" by Brother to Brother
11 "Coming of Age" 3:59 Shawn Carter
Rodolfo Franklin
James Mtume
Clark Kent Memphis Bleek
  • Contains a sample of "Inside You" by Eddie Henderson
12 "Cashmere Thoughts" 2:56 Hamilton Bohannon
Shawn Carter
Leroy Emanuel
Rodolfo Franklin
Melvin Ragin
Clark Kent
  • Contains a sample of "Save Their Souls" by Bohannon
13 "Bring It On" 5:01 Jonathan Burks
Shawn Carter
Todd Gaither
Chris E. Martin
DJ Premier Big Jaz and Sauce Money
14 "Regrets" 4:34 Shawn Carter
F. DiPasquale
Peter Panic
15* "Can I Live II"
International bonus track
3:57 Shawn Carter
Malik Cox
M. Johnson
K-Rob Memphis Bleek
  • Contains a sample of "Mother's Day" by 24 Carat Black
16* "Can't Knock the Hustle (Fool's Paradise remix)"
International bonus track
4:45 Shawn Carter
Irving Lorenzo
Meli'sa Morgan
Lesette Wilson
Irv Gotti

Chart positions


Chart (1996)[23] Peak
U.S. Billboard 200 23
U.S. Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums 3


Song Chart (1996)[21] Peak
"Ain't No Nigga" U.S. Billboard Hot 100 50
U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 17
UK Singles Chart 31
"Can't Knock the Hustle" U.S. Billboard Hot 100 73
U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 35
UK Singles Chart 30
Song Chart (1997) Peak
"Can't Knock the Hustle" New Zealand Singles Chart 26
"Feelin' It" U.S. Billboard Hot 100 79
U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 46

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