Reasonable Doubt will probably always hold a special place in Jay Z’s heart. On his birthday in December he ranked it as his personal favorite out of his 12 solo albums, in interviews he has coined it his “baby” and all these years later his fans revere it just the same.
The album is just about universally recognized as a classic, Jay at his most raw and with a chip on his shoulder the size of the golden nugget, he spins a narrative tale of not only excess and victory, but also of despair and defeat. One second he celebrates the spoils of his drug dealing victory, another he’s languishing in the pain caused by the same exact thing. On “Dead Presidents II” he promises vengeance to a friend who was shot, the very next song he’s enjoying life on the beach, a figurative vacation right before he takes us right back into the cold darkness of his drug dealing past, and kidnaps a former friend’s baby’s mother the following song. Throughout Jay showed us exactly what he told us “this game got valleys and peaks.”
With the order and flow of the album so ingrained into fans minds, it has never really occurred that it could play out differently, that the sequence that made Hov’s debut album so cohesive could be changed, and maybe the album could be damaged, well that’s exactly what almost happened.
Immediately jumping out to me, besides the three additional songs that don’t appear on the version of the album we eventually got (or anywhere else in Jay’s catalog, at least under those names) is the curious decision to end the album with the course-less “22 Two’s” and “Friend or Foe.” On the final version of the album, these two serve more as interludes, bridging the gap between the first half and eventual resolution of the album, and at no point do these two ever feel like the end of the story told before them, but apparently that was the plan.
Also jarring is the decision to start the album with “Dead Presidents,” seemingly the original version, while part II, here the “remix” is relegated to bonus track purgatory. Not because “Dead Presidents,” or the sound of Nas voice announcing that Jay is out for said presidents to represent him, isn’t a proper introduction, but because at this point “Can’t Knock The Hustle” just feels like the beginning of Jay Z, we have long since been trained that that is how he intended his introduction to the world to begin.
If we got Reasonable Doubt as originally intended, would it hold up all these years later? It is, after all, the same batch of songs, plus three of who knows what quality, basically shuffled up on your iPod. Thankfully, we will never know, and what we will always have is what we got the first time we heard it, a cohesive, flowing body of work that took us on a glamorous, yet dangerous and bleak, journey into the world of the gangster Shawn Corey.
So, even though what he may have initially intended was a different journey, what he and those around him eventually settled on was exactly what it needed to be and should have been – a classic.
“Shoulda went triple.”