How much does Reasonable Doubt mean to Jay-Z?

Last year, with a deal on the table offering him the presidency of the most revered label in hip-hop, complete ownership of his seven other albums (all of them platinum or multiplatinum) and the company he’d cofounded a decade earlier with his friends Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Jay said he’d give it all up for one thing: sole possession of the publishing rights to his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt.

In the end, Dame and Biggs declined to sell him their shares of the masters. Jay took over Def Jam and kept the Roc-A-Fella name, clearly coming out on top. But when you think about it, you can see why he wanted Reasonable Doubt so badly. Why it’s so special to him. With one album, his first album, Jay-Z changed the old story’s ending. Look at the movies. Your favorite bad guy rarely makes it to the credits with his freedom or heartbeat still in effect—especially when he’s trying to be a good guy. Carlito dies on the train platform, George Jung’s busted in Blow. “Every time I try to get out,” says Godfather Michael Corleone, “They pull me back in.” Somehow, Brooklyn drug dealer Shawn Carter used his single Lotto ticket, the gift of rhyme, to avoid the seemingly inevitable 25 years in the penitentiary or an early burial 6 feet in the earth. Fourteen tracks of extraordinary East Coast trap music granted him his freedom and security—and gave us, the listeners, a classic.

The lingo was coded, but the message was clear. Jay never asked for sympathy as he dueled with the duality of dying dormant or living enormous. He just celebrated the struggle with Cristal. The nuances of the underworld never sounded so well lit. Reasonable Doubt told of the life and times of a calculated criminal cold enough to never get caught—but one who yearned to do what so many of his colleagues frowned upon: express emotion.

Ten years since its release, Jay remains retired from rap. (Officially at least.) Now he does his hustling from behind a president’s desk in a skyscraper on the west side of Manhattan. That’s where he sat down with XXL recently to talk about the one album he would have changed everything for. The one album that changed everything for him.

You’ve referred to Reasonable Doubt as your “baby.” You tried to get sole ownership of the masters last year—in fact, you were willing to trade the Roc-A-Fella name. Do you see that as being a major part of your separation with Dame and Biggs?
Nah, nah. It wasn’t over that album. It was growth. You know, people grow in different ways. But in trying to do the right thing, I was like, “Well, I gotta get something.” Like, if you were giving me Reasonable Doubt, then I’ll walk away from Roc-A-Fella—that’s gonna be difficult. It’s something that I just couldn’t just leave without both.

What feelings do you get when you listen to the album today?
Damn, this is gonna sound like a really shameless stunt, but it’s real: Chris Martin of Coldplay is a friend of mine. So when we started kickin’ it, he went back and got Streets Is Watching. He came back the next day and was like [in an English accent], “That’s not my friend. Who the fuck is that?” Even myself, when I listen to that shit, I be like, “Damn, I had just a whole different mentality.” They say you change every five years... I mean, I loved that period, what I was going for and how I was thinking.

What about that period did you love so much? From what’s on the album, it sounds like it was a pretty dark time for you.
To be honest, it’s not right, but I loved that guy. I’m still that person, but the thinking on how to handle situations was different, but just so ill. I listen to songs like “Can I Live” and I say, “What the fuck is that?” And “D’Evils,” that was just some sick, demented…

How long did it take for you to complete the album?
It’s cliché, but I really don’t remember the starting point. Like I can tell you when I did Blueprint, I did nine songs in a weekend. And The Black Album in a month. But Reasonable Doubt felt like I was making that album my whole life. Like I know the first records that I made from that album was “Dead Presidents” and “Ain’t No Nigga,” because they’re the singles.

This was a time when a radio single wasn’t so mandatory for a rap album. Did you realize you had a hit record on your hands with “Ain’t No Nigga”?
It’s funny, because I put that whole record together in my head. Even taking [the Four Tops’] “Ain’t no woman like the one I got…,” switching that to the beat. I produced that whole song. Like I wanted to do “Seven Minutes of Funk.” “Ain’t No Woman,” I had crazy problems with Jobete, which is Berry Gordy’s [publishing], over the lyrics. But I just put that song together in my mind. I didn’t know anything about making a hit. I thought they would play “Dead Presidents.” “Dead Presidents” was the A-side! That goes to show how much I know. The B-side was the one that made it to the soundtrack.

At the time, what percentage of your energy was spent on the music, as compared to the streets?
I want to say, umm…70 percent. Because when I said that I was gonna give it a try, I was really just like, “If this shit don’t work, I’m going back. So I’m giving it my all.” Of course, I had street people around me. I was still the same person. So I was freshly out, but I would say 70 percent was into the music, because I spent every day making music. I was going to Jack the Rapper in Atlanta. I was pretty focused when I was creating the album, ’cause there was Maria Davis every Wednesday and the Country Club and all these other things that we were investing time into.

It was Maria Davis’ “Mad Wednesdays” parties that inspired “22 Two’s,” right?
Yeah, that was my secret weapon. Any show I did, I would pull that out. I had that way before. I just did the second verse when I did the album.

Why didn’t you continue the concept past that verse?
I know. I’m not gonna front—I’m so silly about the literal sense of 22 twos that I didn’t want to make any more.

Jay2_200.jpg How did your street partners react when you’d say, I gotta go rap at Maria Davis’ tonight?
That’s how “Can’t Knock the Hustle” got made. I wasn’t saying that you can’t knock me for hustling. I was telling the streets you can’t knock my hustle. Because the streets is what I was doing, rap was my hustle. Rappers weren’t getting paid like that. We came pulling up—I don’t even know how we drank this stuff, 40 bottles of Cristal—in cars at events that rappers would be at. And we’d be like, What’s up with these guys? These guys are supposed to be rich. Guys in the streets, they’d look at rappers and be like, “You wanna be like him?” That’s why it took me so long, because I wasn’t doing that. [I knew] the minute I make a wack record or some shit that doesn’t sell, [the record company] will shit on me. [So I was like] I’m not fuckin’ with these people.

You mentioned “D’Evils” earlier. Did actual events inspire the song?
The funny shit about “D’Evils,” this might sound a little weird, but I remember I dreamt the beginning of the song. I called Biggie right after like, “Yo, I made up these fuckin’ bars in my dream.” It was a really weird experience.

Break this down now, because the verses are set up like a kidnap scene. You’re giving your boy’s girl 50 dollar bills in exchange for info. Yet she’s crying, wishing you and her man were still close…
Right, because of the greed she’s taking the money. “About his whereabouts I wasn’t convinced/So I kept giving her money until her shit started to make cents.” Now that’s a line—if you take money and break it down into a literal sense, when you chew money, your body breaks it down and takes what it needs. So when you take a dollar and eat it, it breaks down to cents, right? So I kept feeding her dollars until her shit started to make sense. See, it’s a double entendre. She feels guilty, so she crying because she knows her man is going down because of her. But with her greed, she can’t help but to take the money. That’s why I love that. I love, love that fuckin’ song.

“Friend or Foe,” fiction or nonfiction?
That’s definitely fiction, but it’s nonfiction in its approach. I mean, that shit happens every day. I just moved it just a little bit outside. I mean, I didn’t want to go to jail. Like we got into shit over being a New York guy in whatever town—Virginia, Maryland, every one of my stops.

Read the rest of this interview in the August 2006 issue of XXL (#83).