It starts with a heartbeat. A young Shawn Corey Carter has just put the finishing touches on an album that has been 26 years in the making, his life’s work: Reasonable Doubt.
Fast-forward. It’s June 25, 1996. Streets is watching and Jay Z eagerly awaits their response. The only thing separating him from his audience is 20 dollars and a Parental Advisory sticker. Only time will tell if his hustle has paid off.
“Took me 26 years to find my path” – New Day
It’s been 20 years since Reasonable Doubt was released and time has proven that it was everything Jay Z needed it to be. While it didn’t have the commercial success of Ready to Die or the immediate critical acclaim of Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt was the foundation of everything that Jay is today. It set the sonic template for his future albums, it put his name out there as one of the up-and-coming lyricists in the game and it gave Roc-A-Fella the foundation to create an empire.
At this stage of his career, Jay Z is more business than man, but in revisiting Reasonable Doubt, I want to take you back to a time when Jay Z was at a crossroads, unsure which path to follow.
“Hustling was my life, music was my hustle” – Classic Albums: Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (Documentary)
For anyone with an artistic spirit, there is an internal struggle that must be put to rest. What’s more important? Creative freedom or financial security? The leap to making your passion your profession is the hardest step to take. It’s the difference between the fulfilled and the bitter, the difference between those getting out their dreams and those wallowing in compromise and regret.
There’s a false sense of security that comes with having a Plan B. If you’re somewhat good at it, it will slowly take over your life. Soon your artistic fantasies become replaced with 401(k)s, 5-year goals and LinkedIn updates. Or, depending on your chosen profession, jail or death.
For Jay Z, at first music was his Plan B. When you hear Jay rap on Reasonable Doubt, it’s not from the perspective of some low-level gangster or wanna-be. Jay’s not telling the gritty street tales of The Infamous or Only Built For Cuban Linx, he’s rapping from the vantage point of someone who’s already made it. More Stringer Bell than Bodie, Jay seems to be looking for an exit strategy.
“I found a new route, you about to see my life change” – "In My Lifetime (Remix)"
1994 was the year that Jay Z started to take rap seriously. After a near brush with death and a couple of close calls with the law, Jay finally caved in to DJ Clark Kent’s requests. He hustled less, rapped more, and met up with Dame Dash, who later introduced him to Kareem “Biggs” Burke.
“I Can’t Get With That” and “In My Lifetime” were Roc-A-Fella’s first singles and the last remnants of Jay’s old, speed-rapping style. After that, Jay slowed his flow down considerably. The reason? He wanted people to gravitate to his stories and the emotions behind them. The result? “Dead Presidents I,” “In My Lifetime (Remix)” and Reasonable Doubt.
“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” – "D’Evils"
Reasonable Doubt represents Jay Z at his core: cocky, talented and relentlessly ambitious. It’s full of metaphors, double entendres and all the things that will make both hip-hop heads and your English professor salivate. Reasonable Doubt is the quintessential soundtrack for anyone that wants to make the most of their days. It’s the spiritual guide for those who refuse to live dormant.
Not everyone is as bold as Jay Z. Me? I compromised. I chose a 9-to-5. I chose security over freedom, money over art. The big surprise is that I’m actually happy about it. Freeing yourself from the stress of making your dreams a reality does wonder for your sanity.
More follower than leader, I took the road most traveled. However, when I wake up for work at 5:30 in the morning, a small part of me wonders if I made the right choice, a small part of me wonders if it’s too late to finally make the leap of becoming a writer.
It took Jay Z 26 years to find his path, it’s about time that I found mine.