There tend to be two primary reasons as to why an album can achieve longevity in popular culture.
Reason One: it’s incredibly good. Think Stankonia, Pink Moon, Ok Computer, Boxer – whatever. These records can be remembered for their music prowess alone, and god forbid you try and disagree. Grass is green, the sky is blue, and Hunky Dory is a masterpiece. End of class.
Reason Two, is often far more interesting: it’s incredibly significant.
Let’s use The Libertines for example. Up The Bracket, their debut album, was, on a musical level, a much better record. Yet, when you think of the band, it’s near impossible to do so without picturing the infamous image of Carl and Pete sprawled around each other that graced the cover sleeve of their eponymous follow-up. Their sophomore effort is considered more important because of what it represented contextually – the drugs, the fights, the meltdowns; all of the history that Libs fans and music scholars alike consider part of the band’s mythology resonates deeply throughout the album. It illustrates a group of young men falling apart, which, eventually, is exactly what happened. It’s importance as a piece of British culture cannot be hyperbolised.
It’s extremely rare that a piece of music can become a mainstay for both of these reasons, but twenty years on, here we are with Reasonable Doubt, the 1996 debut LP released by a young New York rapper who went by the name of Jay-Z.
Let’s hop back onto Reason One. It isn’t strange for an artist or act to peak with their debut – it’s a curse that claims many. But, in Jay-Z, you have one of the most important and consistent artists of the last two decades, with an output that rivals anyone else in the business. However, in Reasonable Doubt, you have a record that even the man himself refers to as his strongest – and this is the same man responsible for The Blueprint and The Black Album. Lofty claims, but who are we to argue.
And then we have our second all important reason. The wider significance.
I’ll break this down:
Firstly, you dissect Jay’s rhymes. There’s an arrogant bravado to what he’s saying and the audible smirk with which its delivered – a sense of entitlement, if you will, from a young man who originally wanted to title the record Heir To The Throne. The Brooklyn MC never shies from his criminal past, but elicits a certain post-Gangster awareness, too, about the lifestyle’s murky implications. It was clear that much like his compatriot Nas, Jay was far cleverer than the initial obnoxiousness would have you believe.
Secondly, you have the appearance from The Notorious B.I.G; the guest-spot from Jay’s fellow New Yorker was quite the coup for the young rapper, and during the aptly titled Brooklyn’s Finest, the padawan more than holds his own against the master. See my previous point about the original album title – this was a transitional moment in hip-hop culture; a passing of the crown.
Finally, you have the context in which the album was released.
After much turmoil and hard graft, the unsigned Jay-Z was finally offered a deal by Payday Records, with whom he released his first solo single. However, in a move that was as daring as it was unconventional, Jay, unhappy with the Payday’s proficiency, spurned the contract to form his own label. He then released Reasonable Doubt in a joint venture with Priority Records and his brand new company, an organisation that went by the name of Roc-A-Fella Records. Sound familiar?
From a small office in New York City, Roc-A-Fella became the platform for which Jay-Z was able to launch Reasonable Doubt and his subsequent career. Twenty years later, he isn’t just a rapper, nor is he just a businessman – he’s ‘a business, man’. Here you have a man who isn’t just a figure within the music industry, but is a large proportion of it. He’s a powerhouse, an empire and a master of his craft, one who has outgrown the glass ceiling his genre built to project himself into the musical stratosphere.
Twenty years on, Reasonable Doubt remains not just because it’s musically superb, but because it was the first stepping stone on the heir’s way to the top. Take a listen to the record – it’s evident that he was always going to be king.
Words by Niall Flynn