Rapper, mogul, husband of Beyoncé and daddy of Blue Ivy, Jay-Z had been living a double life as a hustler and a rapper in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Selling crack on the streets of Brooklyn since the age of 12, the man known as Shawn Carter was only looking for a better life for himself. Appearing on "Hawaiian Sophie” with Jaz-O, touring with Big Daddy Kane and making a name for himself here and there, Jay still struggled to get a deal and considered himself a full-time hustler who rapped on the side. After years of fine-tuning his craft, Jay stepped out on faith along with business partners Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, formed Roc-A-Fella Records and released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, becoming a self-made man instead of just a made man.
On Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z recounts his experiences as a hustler, his guilt at destroying his community to get ahead, along with a little flossing. The first single, “Dead Presidents,” which sampled the infamous line from Nas’s “The World Is Yours,” was the first promotional single from the album and is regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever recorded. “Ain’t No N***a,” which featured a young rhyme animal who had yet to come up with her own stage name before eventually choosing Foxy Brown, would receive significant airplay during the summer and was also featured on The Nutty Professor Soundtrack. However, the song didn’t truly fit the themes of the album. Some of the more interesting album tracks include “D’Evils,” which discusses Hov’s own descent into less than honest behavior, making his deal with the devil to get out of poverty. "Brooklyn’s Finest” saw Jay and The Notorious B.I.G. trade bars as well as barbs with each other, the two heavyweight rappers going bar for bar to prove that neither was the other’s lesser.
When Reasonable Doubt was released in 1996, the album was largely overshadowed by other major releases from 2Pac, Fugees, Nas, OutKast and many others. In fact, the album didn’t achieve platinum status until 2002. Not one single cracked the Top 40. However, the beauty of Reasonable Doubt is that the project was such a dark horse. Originally titled Heir To The Throne, Jay changed the name of the album at the last minute. He felt that his music was on trial and that the audience was the jury. While this may be the reason, the title also plays into Jay’s own possible doubts about his music career. He had been denied a record deal by every major label, told he was physically ugly and, despite grinding with Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane, still just another New York street rapper. However, his drive towards perfection helped him succeed against the odds and on his own terms, becoming not just another businessman, but a brand.