Twenty years ago today, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter dropped his debut album Reasonable Doubt. Arguably the greatest rap album of all-time, Reasonable Doubt is the blueprint of a classic within the genre. From the stellar production to Jay’s untouchable flow and swagger, to the lyrics…the lyrics. As Jay famously stated “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars, they criticize me for it but they all yell holla.” Reasonable Doubt was well before Jay considered simplifying anything. It’s his greatest lyrical effort and to celebrate it we thought what better way than to call out our 20 favourite lyrics from the classic. Check them out along with our explanation for each below. Let us know if we missed any of your favorites.
“I got the US open, advantage Jigga,
serve like Sampress, play fake rappers like a campus”
– Can’t Knock the Hustle
Who doesn’t love some good tennis wordplay? Jay tells listeners he’s running the US with his drug game (serving fiends) all while playing on the biggest tennis tournament (US Open), the sport’s scoring structure (advantage Jigga) and while referencing the star who’s serve was the greatest in the game.
“My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me,
tried to get a nut and he got a nut and what”
-Can’t Knock the Hustle
The double entendre is classic Jay. It’s simple yet intelligent. His pops was just looking to get off but ended up with Hov. It’s hard not to crack a smirk and nod at the cleverness.
“You ain’t seen money in your life, when it
Comes to this cheese y’all like Three Blind Mice”
– Politics As Usual
Some might say this line is cheesy (sorry) but we love it.
“Jay-Z, Big’ Smalls, nigga shit your drawers
Brooklyn represent y’all, hit you fold
You crazy, think your little bit of rhymes can play me?
I’m from Marcy, I’m varsity, chump, you’re JV”
– Brooklyn’s Finest
From the iconic repeat of the hook to Jay reppin’ his home and schoolin’ the youth, Hov proves he was always on a higher level.
“I dabbled in crazy weight,
without rap I was crazy straight,
partna I’m still spending money from 88″
– Dead Presidents II
This one isn’t about the complexity of the rhyme or wordplay but the swagger in which it is delivered and the impact. How many rappers from Rick Ross to Pusha T have you heard bragging about how they’re still spending drug money? Best believe they got it from Jay.
“Murder is a tough thing to digest, it’s a slow process
and I ain’t got nothing but time”
– Dead Presidents II
Interesting line to pick from a track like this, but there’s a reason why we did. Jay has always been a businessman, but when he’s killing the competition, he makes it clear that he’ll make the time to ensure the job gets done right.
“Transactions illegitimate cause life is still a bitch, and then you die,
but for now, life, close your eyes and feel this dick.”
– Feelin’ It’
Many have flipped Nas’ classic line “Life’s a Bitch and then you die” but this is arguably the best. Jay realizes that life isn’t easy and death is a given but for the time being he’s going to fuck it for all it’s worth. Sure it’s graphic but it’s also inspiring and anytime those two converge you’ve done something special.
“I keep it tight for all the nights my momma prayed I’d stop,
said she had dreams a sniper hit me with a fatal shot…those nightmares ma”
– Feelin’ It
This is truly the epitome of Jay Z’s sharp wit and humour. The set-up is poignant while the punchline is comical. Despite his mother’s concern for her son’s life Jay keeps it light by correcting her. The delivery is incredible and it displays Hov’s mastery over the English language and semantics.
“Even if it ain’t sunny, hey, I ain’t complaining,
I’m in the rain doing a buck 40, hydroplaning,
What, shorty? (Where you disappear to, son?) Maintaining,
putting myself in a positions most of these rapper ain’t in, I’m living
– Feelin’ It
Much like the lyrics above this is all about the set-up, delivery and humour. On ‘Feelin It’ Jay packs the timing of stand-up comedian with the insight of a philosopher. Considering the violence within rap at the time and the untimely deaths of the two greatest within a year of its release, this line only became more striking and impactful with time.
“9 to 5 is how you survive, I ain’t trying to survive,
I’m tryna to live it to the limit and love it a lot”
This has to be one of the most sampled, borrowed and flipped lines in rap. Jay perfectly encapsulates the allure of the underworld while also delivering a motivational call to action. It’s one of Jay’s most iconic bars of all time; timeless, thought-provoking and inspiring. It makes anyone who’s working a 9 to 5 want more, cause really who’s just trying to survive? I want to live it to the limit and love it a lot too, don’t you?
“My hand around her collar, feeding her cheese,
she said the taste of dollars was shitty, so I fed her fifties,
about his whereabouts I wasn’t convinced,
I kept feeding his money til’ her shit started to make sense.”
This is some next level wordplay right here. Jay used the association between food and money to its fullest extent. He’s bribing her but the way it’s laid out it feels as though she’s being force-fed. The use of cheese furthers this. At first she resists but as he increases the money her story becomes more believable. The wordplay on sense/cents rounds this one out perfectly.
“No more big Willie, my game is grown,
prefer you call me William”
– Can I Live
Stuntin’ with cleverness. While rappers are claiming they were willie (translation: ballin’) Jay proved he was more grown then them. Soning the game back in 96′.
“While I’m watching every nigga watching me closely,
my shit is butter for the bread they want to toast me”
– Can I Live
Nothing like using a simple breakfast item to explain how Jay’s success bred jealously and longing for his demise. Whether it’s raps or street life his shit is butter and because he’s getting crazy money (bread) his foes want to see him dead (toasted). All this murder talk is making me hungry…
“I’ve been sinning since you was laying with Barbie and Ken’n,
You can’t change a player’s game in the ninth inning.”
– Ain’t no Nigga
Jay being Jay, soning everyone who was trying to come up in that era. His reference to baseball here is really just a cool way of saying, the game’s over because he’s already won.
“You draw, better be Picasso, you know the best, cause if this is not so, God Bless”
– Friend or Foe
Hov has always had a taste for the finer things in life. Since his debut his Picasso drops and references to high art have helped him paint a picture that tells a story. Here, Jay sends out a warning shot letting his friend-turned-foe know that he better be quicker to his pistol.
“The only thing I got in this world is my word and my nuts,
And won’t break them for nobody,
Hah, I like your resume, pick a day, you can start
From now until death do us part nigga”
– Coming of Age
The latter part of the back-and-forth between Jay and Bleek on this record showcases their chemistry and bond. It’s rich with wittiness and gems while documenting on record their life-long bond. The storytellling throughout the cut is legendary and unforgettable.
“Words worth a million like I’m rapping them through platinum teeth”
– Cashmere Thoughts
Jay has always had the braggadocio of a ball player and successful crack slinger. His experience in both makes him a great storyteller and that’s something even the haters can admire.
“Life’s short so play hard and stick hard,
and the only time you love them is when your dick hard”
– Cashmere Thoughts
Misogynistic? Surely. But this is the Iceberg slim era Jay, and this is just one piece of documentation that proves he was in fact “the coldest cat.”
“I dip, spit quicker than you ever seen,
administer pain, next the minister’s screaming your name,
at your wake as I peek in, look in your casket,
feeling sarcastic, “look at him, still sleeping”
– 22 Two’s
Jay borrows ATCQ’s ‘Can I kick it?’ throughout the track, but this is easily one of the most clever tracks he delivered on his debut. We pulled this line because really, this is classic Jay. He naturally raps playfully but with some aggressive words that really make you wish you heard a little more battle rap from him.
“Anyways I ain’t trying to hear it, I think I’m touched,
this whole verse I’ve been talking to your spirit a little too much”
Though Hov has never been soft, for him to humble himself and talk about more personal stories through his music is something he’s always been great at. That’s evident here, where Jay raps to a deceased friends’ spirit throughout the entire track.
Reasonable Doubt is easily one of the greatest rap classics of all time. Though we tried to capture all the quotable’s from the album, the fact of the matter is that you have to absolutely listen to the entire project to get an appreciation for it. Twenty years later, this album still holds rank and proves that Jay Z is in fact a living legend who crafted timeless music. Thank you Hov!