reasonable doubt cover

“Reasonable Doubt—classic, should’ve went triple” -- Jay Z
“Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)”, 2001

Canons are, by their nature, infuriating. Too many great works are excluded, and those that remain often skew safe and inoffensive. Divisiveness is not the road to immortality, at least for a musician.

Of course, we still get some things right. If you ask your thirty-something friend (or your fourteen-year-old friend, or Google) to rattle off the best rap albums ever made, you might get the cloying, middle-of-the-road releases that are classics-by-default, but you’re also bound to get a handful that are genuinely brilliant. Sometimes (Illmatic, Aquemini) worthy albums are bronzed when the packaging is barely off the CD. Other times, it takes longer.

When Reasonable Doubt came out on June 25th, 1996, Jay Z was not the mythical kingpin he is now. Nor was he the forgotten underdog that revisionists would lead you to believe—while the album wasn’t certified platinum until 2002, it nearly went gold in its first five months of release and remained on the charts as ’96 drew to a close. It wasn’t heralded as an instant classic, but the album was received fairly well by critics. (The record originally received four mics in The Source; that rating was later revised to the full five.) On first pass, Reasonable Doubt was another probably-over-budget New York rap album in the mid-‘90s destined to be milked for singles and lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, its creator went on to become the most visible star in rap’s history, guaranteeing his back catalog immeasurable attention. Reasonable Doubt has not just stood up to this scrutiny—it has towered over it, justifying its place as one of the most celebrated albums in all of hip-hop.

Over seventeen years after its release, the album’s art director/designer, Adrien Vargas, has unearthed an early version of its tracklist and has given 2DopeBoyz the green light to reveal it to the world.

reasonable doubt tracklist (original)

(Note: We believe that the list of guests is incomplete and, in the case of “Can I Live”, incorrect. “Coming of Age” features Bleek and is directly above “Coming of Age”, meaning a simple error is likely. Mary J. Blige is not cited for “Can’t Knock The Hustle”, and Jaz and Sauce Money are absent from “Bring It On”. Of course, the latter could be because—per Dame in 2007—the song was supposed to feature Nas and AZ.)

The first thing to catch your eye is the length. In addition to sporting both versions of “Dead Presidents” (and assuming “Politics” is “Politics as Usual”), this original tracklist has three extra songs. Unless they were released under different names, “The Hurt”, “Tell Me”, and “Hot” were not only cut from Reasonable Doubt, but have never surfaced in any format.  While it’s difficult to speculate about songs with nothing more than a title to work with, the sequencing raises some interesting questions—and gives fascinating insight into early Roc-A-Fella’s editing process.

The original plan is that of a singles-oriented affair. Reasonable Doubt would have opened with the lead single, then the radio-ready “Feelin’ It”, and then second single. It’s a jarring, disjointed opening run, especially when “Ain’t No Nigga”—the album’s obvious blemish—fills such a prominent spot. “Brooklyn’s Finest” is buried right past the midpoint. On an album as long as this would have been, that’s the proverbial back pocket, a nice way to round out the record and put Big’s name on the packaging. Instead of being a poignant last word, “Regrets” is one of the ‘humanizing’ tracks that pop up somewhere on the B-side of so many rap albums.

Basically, the version of Reasonable Doubt that made it to shelves has the superior sequencing. Shrugging off the focus on singles, the retail copy is leaner, more thematically sound, and something rap albums were striving to be in 1996: cinematic. The image Jay was trying to project was larger-than-life but always composed; he had none of the detail-oriented tunnel vision of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… because he wasn’t so much a drug dealer as he was a smart, charismatic opportunist. Bringing “Can’t Knock The Hustle” front and center drives home that point. Mary J. Blige’s hook (“I’m taking out this time/to give you a piece of my mind”) is myth-building 101: Jay was insistent that this rap thing was a one-off affair.

Perhaps because Jay, Dame, and Biggs realized Jay matched Big bar-for-bar, “Brooklyn’s Finest” was moved to the front of the A-side. To be clear, this was a statement if nothing else—having the biggest rapper in New York on your album was a selling point, but keeping up with him was a coup. Making “Regrets” the final track gives Reasonable Doubt a sense of closure, but it also shows a character grow and change over the album’s fifty-six minutes. If “Friend or Foe” were the closer, Jay would finish right where he began: heartlessly stealing bricks from a hotel room. “Friend or Foe” is a great song, but it paints a harsh picture of life that songs like “Regrets” help to soften.

All that said, this original tracklist avoids the one sequencing blunder on the official Reasonable Doubt: the one-two punch of “Dead Presidents II” and “Feelin’ It”. Discarding an album’s lead single in favor of its reprise is a bold move, but it was the right one. “Dead Presidents II” is widely considered one of the finest songs of its era, and for good reason (“I dabbled in crazy weight—without rap, I was crazy straight/partner, I’m still spendin’ money from ’88”). But the beats on that track and “Feelin’ It” share strikingly similar tempos and piano lines, to the point where one bleeds seamlessly into the other. Moreover, both records cast Jay as the untouchable victor. By simply flipping “Feelin’ It” and “D’Evils”, the journey to the album’s climax—“Can I Live”—would be exponentially darker and that much more interesting. As it stands now, “D’Evils” balances out the breezy good-life sentiment on “Feelin’ It”. Reversed, we would hear a different story: After detailing the horrific realities of the criminal underworld, Jay is unbothered, on a beach somewhere.

So with many thanks to Vargas (and Director John Colombo on the alley oop!), we ask you: What do you think of the original tracklist for Reasonable Doubt? What changes would you make? Does the shift from expansive, commercially ambitious epic to carefully crafted LP hint that Jay was planning to stick around? After nearly two decades, what songs hold up the best? And what were those three lost tracks about?

ENTER RATING

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  • shake

    Let's have some fun with this.

    • BEACH_HOUSE_2

      hahah word

    • BEACH_HOUSE_2

      hey shake there was a artist mentioned a while ago with some other vegas kats they dropped a new song. the love at first sound folks. not really feeling it sounds like a drake left over song or something but eh. the greater good still my fav. soundcloud.com/Love_At_First_Sound/NothingsChanged

  • espyy

    Still a fuckin classic. PERIOD.

  • Beard Gawd

    This comment will probably get a shit load of hate but personally, I think 'Reasonable Doubt' as a whole hasn't aged well at all. Especially thematically. It sounds really dated. That's not to say it's a bad album... it's just not a classic, to me.

    I'd say Jay's best piece of work is 'The Black Album'.

    • Paul Thompson

      I'm interested in this, especially because you specify themes, rather than sonic qualities as aging poorly. To me, a couple things out the album as a mid-'90s effort: the beat on Regrets, the entirety of Ain't No Nigga, the bizarre vocal mix on Coming of Age, etc. But I think the themes read as pretty universal. How do you figure?

      • fashionLines

        true..the tracks you named do have that 90's sound..but as a whole its better aged than any of the greats today...em, nas, i know theres some others but you get my point

    • ilamarca

      Black Album is widely considered a classic as well so which is better is really a matter of taste.
      That said, not only was Reasonable Doubt created 17 years ago but if you think it sounds dated you must live in the mountains or somewhere its 10 below freezing year round. Crank that shit on a hot summer day with your windows down and feel like a million bucks...

      • Paul Thompson

        Ha, that's funny--I almost added something about how I feel that, even though it came out in June, it's the quintessential cold winter album.

    • miles b

      I highly disagree! thematically it's one of the best albums in the history of the genre. never before was there an album that showcased all sides of the hustla. Also some of these beats are simply iconic. why do u think there are literally thousands of dead presidents freestyles still to this day? this album is a definite classic.

  • Yeezus

    22 Two's shoul've been the Intro.

    • Paul Thompson

      Interesting--how come?

      • Yeezus

        It's inviting. Gives the album a better opening than any other song. Other than an Intro it doesn't actually fit in any placement.

        • Paul Thompson

          I can kind of get behind that. Would you scrap the talk show element?

          • Yeezus

            No, that is the basis for it feeling so inviting. It makes you feel part of the crowd at the event.

    • polo hova

      That or Can I Live

  • ilamarca

    Funny that RD takes a hit because DP2 and Feelin It "share strikingly similar tempos and piano lines, to the point where one bleeds seamlessly into the other" when 99% of the songs today sound exactly like the next.
    Goes to show why RD was a classic (in my mind those 2 tracks back to back werent a big deal) and where hip hop is at today. By definition its tough to make a classic (obviously) but most of these rappers arent even close.

  • marty mcfly

    The way the album came out was dope. Jay had a song in 94 called Reach The Top that today sounds like he was speaking his own destiny into existence and that would've been dope on the album but it still came out classic. People listening to it now may not hear it the way it sounded almost 20 years ago but you gotta remember this was back in 96 and Jay probably recorded it in 95. Niggas was just not that lyrically dope yet, rappers was not that detailed and alot of rappers was making up shit about the hustler life. Reasonable Doubt sounded crazy back in 96 cause it was just some seriously dope and lyrically intricate and musically captivating piece of work and not too many albums were at that time. You listen to that first verse from Can I live and its like you watching a movie on some Scorsese black gangsta Casino type shit. Rappers just do not make these kinda albums fam. Shit is classic

    • BEACH_HOUSE_2

      word

      • marty mcfly

        Jayz - "The percentage who don't understand is higher then the percentage who do, check yourself, what percentage is you?" CLASSIC

    • marty mcfly

      Let me make a correction or elaborate if you will about something real quick. There was other alot of dope shit of course in 1996 that was lyrical, musical, classic etc... but overall it was still alot of rappers just putting one dimensional rhymes together. On the gangster rap side, alot of rappers tried to make they shit sound over the top like they was the most richest and most ruthless mobsters ever on they albums. Reasonable Doubt was lyrical and musical dope but it also comes across as being believable and that to a degree is something I feel alot of MCs was still trying to figure out back then. Jay put shit together like only a hustla for real can relate with like on Regrets how he talks about reading the other persons eyes as your trying to make a deal or a sell. Or like on Friend Or Foe, that whole part where he says "Let me guess, they said it was money around here and the rest is me stopping you from getting it correct? Sorry to hear that"... "You draw, better be Picasso, you know the best, cause if this is not so, ah, God bless"... Those type of in depth perspectives and layered situations are all over Reasonable Doubt and thats what I meant when I said niggas was just not THAT lyrically dope yet... back then

      • david

        How the fuck have these 2 posts got so many dislikes? I didn't know about that Reach The Top track, about to listen to it now taking the timing of release into perspective, cheers for the heads up

        • Rebel_INS

          because Marty Mcfly is a fuckboy son

          • marty mcfly

            Speak for yourself bitch

      • http://www.HoodCelebritys.com/ hoodcelebritys

        Real talk king

  • biff tannen

    Am I the only person that thinks the original dead presidents is way better???? The second verse on that is genius. One of Jays all time best verses imo

    • PV

      I think theyre equally dope. 1 is referenced more because of the opening line but to say its way better, come on son

      • biff tannen

        Listen to that second verse, he breaks down the highs n lows of hustling so well. That verse is better than 95% of all his other stuff. Dead presidents Ii included.

    • dpm

      No, you're not.

  • 91&^UP

    The skit with the woman talmbout "get him outta here get him outta here" should have been left off

    • saf100792

      I gotta disagree. One of my favorite parts of the album. Always a good laugh when everyone snitches on dude smoking lol

  • North

    That penmanship

  • Buster Cherry

    D'Evils is such a timeless track. The second verse in my opinion is one of the greatest.

  • illsupra

    Illmatic is still better...

    *runs*

    http://i44.tinypic.com/2i8dgl2.gif

    • biff tannen

      Lol

    • shake

      haaaaaaa.

    • JOSHG808

      the guy running wasn't lying tho

  • polo hova

    They did the right thing. Friend or Foe is not a good closer. Regrets easily the best closer. But I could see Coming Of Age closing the album.

  • Jose Stone

    Can yall imagine what Bring It On w/ Nas and AZ would've sounded like back then? smh We missed out on that one!

  • Lucky Lefty

    jay keepin up with big is a radical opinion i just can't get with.. jay gets murdered on his album by literally everybody, to say that he kept up with big is just ludacris at best.

  • biff tannen

    *peter griffin voice*
    Shut up meg.

  • marty mcfly

    Jayz made no comment about the chain. When he was asked about it he said that its personal. So he made no real reasoning of the symbol. Those that know what it means, know what it means and by Jay simply wearing and not commenting on it he's basically saying you can go ahead and say how you feel but he's keeping is comment to himself. Now you take this guy who preaches that the number one rule in the eyes of God is to love him and love your neighbor but yet he makes video after video year after year spreading hate and acting like its based in love for his neighbors? FOH. I am not a 5%er but would I publicly give some form of salute to them if I felt like it? Yes, why? because appreciate the underlined principles of what they stand for period. Its not complicated. This guy is mad because he is cut more from the cloth of a KKK clansman then he could ever be from any righteous people. So if this is the way he chooses to show love for thy neighbor then its a good chance nobody wants this haters kinda love.

  • biff tannen

    Dude, we get it. You love jay z. You can stop now

  • biff tannen

    I thought I told you to shut up....

  • marty mcfly

    NO, I just dont love mothafuckas that do bitch shit.