Hip-hop’s first billionaire came from humble beginnings. Yet never did Jay-Z falter, be it as a hustler on the streets or an emerging young lyricist behind the mic. A student Jaz-O’s mentorship, Jay found himself a kindred spirit in Dame Dash. Together, the two men embarked on the path to forge an empire, though they might not have even fathomed the scope their eventual impact. Twenty-three years ago, on June 25th 1996, the Jigga Man’s debut album arrived into the world.
The hip-hop landscape was far cry from that today. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” stood at the top the charts; 2Pac‘s “California Love” would soon follow, a single from February’s All Eyez On Me project. Another young talent by the name Busta Rhymes had released his debut album The Coming in March. The Geto Boys’ The Resurrection kicked f April, followed by Master P‘s fifth studio album Ice Cream Man. When Jay-Z hit the scene that summer, he was already 26, relatively older than some his contemporaries. Yet with that came an additional sense wisdom and authenticity, made evident from the onset opening track “Can’t Knock The Hustle.”
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With production from Ski, Knobody, DJ Premier, Irv Gotti, Clark Kent, Peter Panic, and Big Jaz, Reasonable Doubt’s gritty brand mafioso orchestration made for a uniquely Brooklyn vibe. The album has aged particularly well as a piece golden-era history, its lo-fi charm never lost amid the music’s suggested grandiosity. Even now, there are some who consider it to be Jay’s magnum opus, though such claims are certainly debatable. Yet anybody who has ever experienced Reasonable Doubt, or parsed through it with a historian’s sensibility, understands the magnitude it. This is the birth Jay-Z, and for that reason, it deserves to be immortalized accordingly.
Can you imagine a world without Hov? A bleak proposition, given the sheer volume classic material he’s blessed us with. And to think, it all began with Reasonable Doubt, the product a hustler’s ambition and a brilliant young lyricist eager to make his mark. From trading bars with the late legend Notorious B.I.G. (“if I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closest one) to flipping wisdom from his eventual rival Nas (“I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong”), Jay’s first impression made for an instant classic in an era many consider to be hip-hop’s most fruitful. Should you harbor even a remote interest in hip-hop history, take a moment to celebrate another year Reasonable Doubt, a hustle that has yet to be knocked.