On this day, June 25, in hip-hop history...

Roc-A-Fella Records
Roc-A-Fella Records

1996: On June 25, 1996, little known Brooklyn MC Jay-Z dropped his debut studio album, Reasonable Doubt.

The Metro, a dreary office complex on John Street lined by hot dog stands and jewelry repair joints, housed a mélange of MCs, producers and staffers whose names were seldom recognized beyond Brooklyn: Sauce Money, Memphis Bleek, Dame Dash. A lanky, flat-nosed rapper named Jay Z was founding his own label with a small pittance from Priority Records, though his previous gigs included touring as Big Daddy Kane’s hype man and selling crack in the Marcy Projects. Guest spots for Big L and Mic Geronimo raised his profile, but Jay still lacked exposure in an oversaturated market as Reasonable Doubt was ready for release.

The message never reached Roc-A-Fella’s floor. Jigga was penning rhymes about the life of a lavish mobster and surveying an empire that had yet to fully exist, and Reasonable Doub timmersed its listener in a world that’s both intensely elitist and charismatically inviting. Relationships with Don Corleone and TVs in the headrest on “Politics As Usual.” Glasses of Chandon with Biggie on “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Charles Jourdan for his stable of hoes on “Ain’t No Nigga.” Jay was toasting to stories closer to Carlito’s New York than his John Street office, and delivered them with such undeniable likability that they quickly became true.

But not every track on the LP was celebratory. “D’Evils” found Jay paranoid among the money-hungry and the corrupt; the daydreams of “Dead Presidents II” were delivered from over his shoulder. “At my arraignment / Screaming, all us blacks got is sports and entertainment until we even,” he rapped on “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” Reasonable Doubt featured a rookie Jay Z that was both immensely entertaining and harrowingly honest, often at the same time.

The album debuted at No. 23 on the Billboard's 200, while the lead single “Dead Presidents II” was certified gold by summer. HOV’s meticulous aesthetic and loose flow made for a highly-anticipated second album and an upgraded Roc-A-Fella office. 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 lightened up on the Mafioso raps in favor of commercially accessible singles, and as the story goes, Jay hasn’t rapped like Common since. We doubt he’s sweating that right now as his On The Run tour with Beyoncé projects record profits.

As Reasonable Doubt celebrates its 21st anniversary today, the money from ‘88 is still good.—Steven Goldstein

See Photos of Jay Z's Different Looks Over the Years

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