Trying to revisit Reasonable Doubt 10 years after its release is no easy task. It’s never really easy to dissect art in retrospect, keeping a perspective that does the work justice. In the case of Jay-Z, it is even harder. A decade since his debut, it’s safe to say that a few things have changed for S. Carter. He retired from the corner, he became a superstar selling some 20 million albums, he went from rapper to full blown cultural icon, he went from up-and-comer to possibly the greatest emcee to ever do it, from co-owner of an indy label to the president of hip-hop’s most revered institution. To say that Jigga’s status in this game, and in this world, has changed since Reasonable Doubt, well that may be as understated as saying he rhymes okay.

I’m not big on labeling things, but I can’t argue that it’s always easier to group things together. For all intents and purposes, Reasonable Doubt would fall under the category of gangsta rap. His rhymes were littered with tales of drug dealing, crime and violence, staples of the gangsta rap sub-genre. But simply calling this album gangsta rap is more criminal than Jay’s former occupation. Aside from the obvious exceptions, gangsta had largely been and more so become a fairly juvenile brand of music. The ghetto reports had become little more than glorified accounts of violence and misogyny. Consequence was absent with only ignorance taking its place. Gangsta rap had largely become kids stuff, as they really didn’t know any better.

As the rap game was making its final turns to the disaster it remains today, Jay-Z came in with his bone chilling debut. It put consequences back in the ill life, his narratives were delivered an effortless flow, incredible wit, a smirk and a shrug of the shoulders. He knew what he was doing; he knew what he had done. He had dealt with it, now we had to. No apologies were being made.

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While I’m watchin’ every nigga watchin’ me closely/my shit is butter for the bread they wanna toast me/I keep my head, both of them where they supposed to be
Hoes’ll get you sidetracked and clap from close feet/I don’t sleep, I’m tired, I feel wired like codeine/these days a brother gotta admire from four fiends away/My pain, wish it was quick to see, from sellin ‘caine/’til brains was fried to a fricassee/can’t lie, at the time it never bothered me/at the bar gettin my thug on properly/my squad and me, lack of respect for authority/laughin’ hard, happy to be escapin’ poverty/however brief I know this game got valleys and peaks/expectation/for dips, for precipitation we stack chips, hardly/the youth I used to be, soon to see a mil’in/no more Big Willie, my game has grown prefer you call me William/illin’ for revenues, grateful, dim the light/Channel 7 news, ‘round seven jewels, hand gettin’the mic/forgettin’ all I ever knew, convenient amnesia/I suggest you call my lawyer, I know the procedure/lock my body can’t trap my mind/easily explain why we adapt to crime/I’d rather die enormous than live dormant that’s how we on it

The attitude of Jay-Z on his seminal debut remains best captured in one song. It lacked the pure, raw skill of 22 Two’s, it lacked the playboy swagger found on Ain’t No Nigga. It was full of subtle menace, irreverent confidence and remorseless, gripping storytelling. While Reasonable Doubt as a whole is much different than any of his other LP’s, he was able to recreate a similar vibe of many songs over the years. With the possible exception of Where I’m From, Jay never came close to duplicating the darkness of D’Evils. Complimented by a perfect backdrop from the indelible DJ Premier, Jay delivered what remains the apex of his illustrious career.

This shit is wicked on these mean streets, none of my friends speak/we all trying to win, but then again/maybe it’s for the best though, ‘cause when they seein’ too much/you know they’re trying to get you touched/whoever said illegal was the easy way out couldn’t understand the mechanics/and the workings of the underworld, granted/nine to five is how you survive, I ain’t trying to survive/I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot/
life ills, poison my body/I used to say ‘fuck mic skills’, never prayed to God/I prayed to Gotti/that’s right it’s wicked, that’s life I live it/ain’t asking for forgiveness for my sins, ends/I break bread with the late heads, picking their brains for angles/on all the evils that the game’ll do/it gets dangerous, money and power is changing us/and now we’re lethal, infected with D’Evils.

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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/thinkin’ 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 feedin’ her money ’til her shit started to make sense/who could ever foresee, we used to stay up all night at slumber parties/now I’m tryin’ to rock this bitch to sleep/all the years we were real close/now I see his fears through her tears, know she’s wishin’ we were still close/don’t cry, it is to be/in time I’ll take away your miseries and make ’em mine…D’Evils…

My flesh, no nigga could test/my soul is possessed by D’Evils in the form of diamonds and Lexuses/the Exorcist, got me doing sticks like ‘homie/you don’t know me, but the whole world owe me – strip!’/was thought to be a pleasant guy all my fucking life/so now I’m down for whatever, ain’t nothing nice/throughout my junior high years it was all friendly/but now this higher learning got the Remy in me/liquors invaded my kidneys/got me ready to lick off, mama forgive me/I can’t be held accountable, D’Evils beatin’ me down boo/got me runnin’ with guys, making G’s, tellin’ lies that sound true/come test me, I never cower/for the love of money, son, I’m giving lead showers/stop screamin, you know the demon said it’s best to die/and even if Jehovah witness, bet he’ll never testify, D’Evils…”

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Reasonable Doubt isn’t the greatest album of all-time, I wouldn’t even call it top 10. It isn’t even the best debut album that we’ve seen as Illmatic easily takes those honors. But as we reflect back 10 years later, having been witness to this man rise from a hustler-turned-rapper to a global icon whose name drop creates trends, this album has a feel to it so special it can be best described as surreal. Jay has accomplished so much since this album you’d think it came out 20 years ago. We were all witness, without a doubt.