No Doubt:20 Years Later Reasonable Doubt Lives

“I’m making short term goals” – Jay Z; 1996

Jay Z lied to us. Literally. The first words on his first album were a complete lie. I’m not here to debate 92 bricks. I mean, I’ve met Emory Jones, his eyes alone spoke truth to me. But Jay Z definitely lied to us on Reasonable Doubt (The best rap album of all time in my personal opinion). His first words were “I’m making short term goals”. I’m not saying he wasn’t making short term goals but that line, if taken literally, is misleading. I think Jay Z always planned to be the greatest rapper of all time, he was always thinking long term. But this was really Shawn Carter the hustler talking to us. Anyone who has done their due diligence on Hov knows the story that his plan was ultimately to do one album then… Fade to Black. He saw rap as the next product to sling for a flip. But love is like a good stock option, it works even when you’re sleeping. Shawn Carter the hustler probably never believed that his dream of being the best rapper ever would hold him so tightly and fight every urge to skip to the next hustle. But here we are 20 years later, and new Jay Z verse (I got the keys- Dj Khaled feat Jay Z and Future) will be released tomorrow. How potent is a package that has been wrapped/rapped for 20 years and still is the most sought after on the block?


“Niggas can’t fade me” Do you think he ever thought he wasn’t the best? {Reasonable} Doubt to me is about a man that knows he’s the best, and I’m going to prove it. Beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t want it handed to me. I don’t want anything handed to me. But what’s mine is mine and I’ll take it. King of the double entendre, Jay Z has taught me, maybe too much, to treat every phrase like a coin. Double sided. Everything can mean more than one thing. “Niggas can’t fade me”; depending on the listener, you’re probably inclined to believe this is just typical braggadocio rap. Possibly. But look deeper. Here’s a man who made it on the train that Carlito didn’t. So not only can rappers not outrap him, the streets also didn’t kill him. He made it out.


“Jay Z got too many answers”; this is a movie. From scene to scene he’s doing what he set out to do, remove the Reasonable Doubt. By the time you get to “D’Evils” he’s turning the corner. The first half of the album is slick talk. Big Willie shit. Here’s my wordplay. Here’s my vision. Here’s the politics. Here’s my pedigree. Here’s my success already. Here’s the goal. Dead Presidents. “D’Evils” gives you the first scenes of his paranoia. But this is 1996. This is alpha male Black America at its peak. Pre social media and social acceptance of mass male vulnerability “D’Evils” is a man telling you, I know what I’ve done, to survive, but in surviving I know I’ve crossed lines of no turning back. Ironically, he’s also telling you that he has to constantly look over his shoulder. But will God save him? Will confessing his sins and asking for forgiveness be enough? You’re witnessing him reflecting on some of his most wicked decisions, and knowing the motivation behind those decisions, he knows other people have similar motivations. If he was willing to kidnap his friend’s baby mother he’s known since he was a kid playing with building blocks, in the name of profit, which friend is willing to betray him in the same way? “None of my friends speak, we all trying to win”. Then he quickly gets angry. “I ain’t asking for forgiveness of my sins”. His defiance grows with every recollection. As the liquor invades his kidneys and the OGs in the game brief him on all the tactics his rivals could use to take his place he begins to feel invincible. “I Can’t Die”


“My pain, wish it was quick to see” the middle of this album is the silent cries in the dark that no one ever hears. That inner conflict of man vs self when he questions was it all worth it. And if it is, why doesn’t anyone see how much his pain caused him to take the direction he took? “From selling ‘caine ’til brains was fried to a fricassee” this is the result. He’s telling you he exhausted all other options and he’s seen so much that he lacks remorse. He knows that he had no choice. “Can I Live” was a beautiful depiction of what a man building muscle looks like. To anyone who’s ever lifted weights, you know to build up muscle your muscles must first be broken down. The sequence of these songs are perfect because he’s given you the breakdown more and more, despite him keeping the poker face on because he can’t show too much weakness. As we get to the end of Can I Live he’s transformed from showing you what he survived to why he’ll continue to survive. So many raw emotions in these records but triumph is the backdrop for this transition. You have to look deeper than the Mafioso theme to see what’s being said here but it’s beautiful. “Confidentially speaking in code since I sense you peeking”


Shawn Carter the hustler makes a return when he hops back into slick talk about the spoils of the game on “Ain’t no nigga” to “Friend or Foe”. We don’t see Shawn Carter the man again in all his splendor until we weave thru a couple more immaculate scenes and make it to “Regrets”. Which was the perfect close out. From my perspective, it’s the last look back at the 26 years prior to this album being released because he knows, after this, his life will change. The lessons and the hardships, the friendships and the relationships, the highs and the lows will become very much different after this album. This is Carlito walking on the train because Benny Blanco from the Bronx was too late. And it’s bittersweet. Everyone, I assume, would love to make it out of the drug game on two feet instead of being carried by twelve other feet, but it’s not really expected. Death or jail, that’s typically how this movie ends. So as he reflects on “Regrets” on the drugs he sold, and how more and more his heart tugged on him (and his money and profile grew) where he couldn’t even serve the fiends the same way he used to. He wanted out. He knew he wanted out. So he’s flashing back on moments where he first started to realize it. The heartache he caused his mom and knowing that he almost pulled a trigger that would’ve confirmed one of her biggest fears of him being outside. “About to hot him, and hit rock bottom”. For the final verse he reminisces about a friend who didn’t make it out. How that friend perhaps was his guardian angel that helped him actually make it but the guilt that still comes with that.


All in all, Reasonable Doubt is 20 years old today, and in a catalog full of immaculate work, it’s still Jay’s magnum opus. Which, if you ask me, isn’t a knock to his discography because it’s the only one it took 26 years to make. It’s carefully crafted from the rhyme patterns, to the coded intricacies, to the AMAZING production. It wasn’t my first introduction to Jay Z. My first full length Hov album was Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life. But the older I got the more things became clearer to me which simultaneously revealed a missing piece, the beginning. I went back while I was in 9th grade and was amazed. Nearly two decades later I’m still decoding certain lines. I’m still attaching to different emotions from different points and further appreciating that something I’ve heard thousands of times is still teaching me. It’s so much medicine in the candy and I know he planned it to be that way. Jay Z is my favorite rapper of all time for that very reason. There’s not an album I don’t have or many officially released songs I haven’t heard but Reasonable Doubt still does it for me. I’m honored to have been born in the era that held standards that he epitomized on this album. It’ll never get old, even as it gets older! What a grand opening, word to Ty Ty.

Travis Cochran