This Saturday (June 25) marks the 20th anniversary of Jay Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, a project that is not only celebrated because it was Shawn Carter’s formal introduction to the rap game, but also because of its lasting legacy in a catalog that is filled with classics. We hopped on the phone with Hov’s longtime collaborator and producer Just Blaze to get his take on Reasonable Doubt and what makes it so timeless.
Complex: When you first heard Reasonable Doubt, what was your impression?
Just Blaze: I think the perspective that Jay gave us was one we hadn’t heard before. The street hustler who’s coping with his human side, in terms of the effects of the things he’s done. Up until that point, a rapper’s perspective of a street hustler, they didn’t really get introspective. It was more so, “I sell drugs and this is what i do,” without any thought beyond that. To get that more introspective perspective from Jay on Reasonable Doubt, that was definitely something we’ve never heard before.
And it’s a great collection of well-produced songs. Records like “Dead Presidents II,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “D’Evils,” from a production standpoint, everything was held to a certain bar of quality. At that time, you had some good albums, but a lot of the bigger albums from that time period, they focused on the singles, and the albums were filler. Not to say that every album was like that at the time, but there were quite a few of them. So from a production standpoint, and me being an up-and-coming producer, some of that production work really blew my mind and definitely influenced the way I work and listened to music, especially “Dead Presidents II.” That’s one of my favorite tracks of all time apart from the vocals; the instrumental itself is kind of mind-blowing. For me it definitely was a great marriage of strong production but also with an actual narrative — an introspective narrative that we hadn’t seen too much of in hip-hop.
Like you mentioned, you were an up-and-coming producer at the time. Were there any specific elements or techniques that you heard on Reasonable Doubt and implemented into your own arsenal?
I wouldn’t say there was a specific technique that I picked up from listening to the album, but I would definitely say it caused me to listen to samples a bit differently. Again, “Dead Presidents II” being this melancholy somber piece of music with a Lonnie Liston Smith sample, but then Ski has these super-hard hitting drums behind it. It was an interesting juxtaposition that you hadn’t heard too much in hip-hop at that time. Or like how “Brooklyn’s Finest” is not really a four-bar loop; it’s like four and a half. What I took from that is sometimes it’s not about the structure, it’s about how it feels. If you took that “Brooklyn’s Finest” loop, that Ohio Players loop, and tried to make it a four-bar loop, it wouldn’t work. So I think what I would take from that is as long as it feels good, it doesn’t matter. Could be four bars, six bars, eight bars, doesn’t matter.
I’m guessing at some point you’ve probably had conversations with Jay about Reasonable Doubt. Can you share anything from them?
To be honest we really didn’t. We never really talked about Reasonable Doubt much. I mean we obviously knew it was a good album, but I would say he and Guru probably had more conversations about that than he and I. It’s been so long, so many conversations, but I really don’t remember one specifically about Reasonable Doubt other than probably in the Blueprint 2 era — his thing was always, “If I could get ownership of my older music, Reasonable Doubt was the one.” That was like his baby. Understandably so — it was his introduction to the world on a large scale.
Production-wise, what is it about Reasonable Doubt that makes it so great?
Not to say he doesn’t pay attention to trends, but if you look at the majority of Jay’s catalog, you’ll find a good amount of timeless music in there, even beyond Reasonable Doubt. I think that’s because he knows how to pick timeless beats, and he’s always been good at surrounding himself with producers who make timeless music. From the early days with Ski and Clark Kent to the later times like me and Kanye, Pharrell, and Timbaland — if you look at the circle of producers he’s kept, it’s been guys who understand how to make timeless music.
Last question: Is Reasonable Doubt Jay Z’s best album?
I don’t know, to be honest. And I’m not saying this because of my involvement in other albums. I don’t know if it is. It’s definitely in his top three. For me, it depends on the mood I’m in. One day I might say the Black Album, another day I might say Blueprint, another day I might say Reasonable Doubt. I can’t say that it’s his best one. He has too many great comprehensive bodies of work.