JAY-Z's 'Reasonable Doubt' Was Not an Instant Classic

A powerful reminder that Jay's now unquestionably classic debut album was first met with a lukewarm response.
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A powerful reminder that Jay's now unquestionably classic debut album was first met with a lukewarm response.

Like Illmatic, Jay Z' Reasonable Doubt is one of those hip-hop albums that's now an unquestioned classic. It's not just considered a great album, it's rightfully considered a pillar of modern hip-hop, a masterpiece, the kind of album that can't be left off any "Best of All-Time" list without the writer looking like a moron. 

There's a good dose of revisionist history happening in the unqualified praise for Reasonable Doubt we see now though, a fact I was reminded of in this new interview with Roc-A-Fella founder Kareem "Biggs" Burke.

When asked about the initial slow response to Hova's debut album, he responded: 

“Ain't No” was the first record to catch fire, then “Can’t Knock the Hustle” was the second one, and the presence Biggie had on the album. Those took us gold, but at the time we were with Priority Records, so we didn’t have a big label and they weren’t putting much behind it. We used our own money to promote the album. When we got with a bigger machine it was easier to take it the next level. The next album, Vol. 1, went platinum.

Even that's being a bit glass half-full. When Reasonable Doubt was first released in 1996 it peaked at No. 23 on the charts and sold 420,000 copies, at the time a number that was far from impressive. That same year Tupac's All Eyez on Me would go platinum in FOUR HOURS. And when it comes to the album's singles "catch fire" is also a relative term. "Ain't No" was the album's big hit, thanks in large part to its inclusion on the Nutty Professor soundtrack, but even that peaked at #50 on the charts. "Can't Knock the Hustle" topped out at #73, "Feelin' It" at #79, and that all-time classic "Dead Presidents" never charted at all. It wasn't until six years later in 2002, when Jay Z had blown up and people went back to his earlier catalog, that Reasonable Doubt was finally declared platinum. Solid, but certainly nothing that would indicate that rap's next big superstar had arrived. 

But those are the charts, and as Biggs pointed out, whether the label wasn't supporting Jay because he wasn't poppin' or he wasn't poppin because the label wasn't supporting him, surely the hip-hop community instantly recognized the album's greatness, right?

Well, kind of. The Source, at the time the Bible of hip-hop reviews, gave it a four our of five mics and wrote that:

"Jay Z isn't saying anything new. It's the same 'ol criminal melodrama that you hear on so many rap LPs these days."

Fittingly, it wasn't until two years later that The Source "revised" its rating to 5 mics because it had become clear that any publication that had, you know, not initially declared it a classic couldn't be trusted. And from the fan side, while there were certainly no shortage of hip-hop heads that loved the album on their first listen, like we detailed in our Classic Hate pieces for Nasand Biggie, there were also no shortage of critics, the main knock on the album being that, "He mostly raps about drugs, money and cars. Nothing special, nothing new." 

Especially with someone like Jay Z, who in 2016 appears to sneeze million dollar deals and spends his vacation time jumping off yachts with his gorgeous wife, it can feel like success was always assured like the path was always smooth and self-doubt never crept in. But the powerful thing about looking back at the initial response to now-classic albums like Reasonable Doubt is that it reminds us there are undoubtedly new albums we're overlooking now and that even the greatest have been under-estimated and forced to invest in themselves when no one else would. Artists, act accordingly.