After a hard day of big pimpin', Judge Victor Valdivia needs his rest, as his back hurts, his sinuses are acting up, and he has a nasty paper cut from counting all his benjamins. Holla!
"It was about real emotions. Our real life experiences. I don't believe it had ever been done before in this way."—Jay-Z
The newest entry in the excellent Classic Albums series is as thorough and well-researched as the others, but suffers from flaws that are less the fault of the disc's producers and more inherent to the artist himself.
Facts of the Case
Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt tells the story of how this renowned album came about. Reasonable Doubt was the debut release by rapper Jay-Z, who would become of the biggest and most prominent stars in hip-hop history. Through live performance footage and interviews with the album's producers, guest musicians and artists, and Jay-Z himself, Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt details the complete history of the album, from the writing and recording to the album's reception, both upon its release and today, over a decade later.
The release of Reasonable Doubt in 1996 was a defining moment in hip-hop, for better and for worse. After years of L.A.'s dominance of the hip-hop charts and fans' hearts, mainly through the enormous success of gangsta rap label Death Row Records, Reasonable Doubt brought New York-based hip-hop back into prominence again. New York had been the birthplace of hip-hop in the mid-'70s and had enjoyed unquestioned primacy throughout the '80s. By the early '90s, though, NYC hip-hop had lost ground to the L.A.-based gangsta rap style of producer Dr. Dre, one of Death Row's founders. That decline had hit NYC-based label Def Jam records especially hard. Though Def Jam had almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for hip-hop's commercial ascendance through revolutionary and influential artists like Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, it suffered from a painful and lengthy dry spell for most of the '90s. Saddled with bad business deals and a roster of forgettable new artists, Def Jam was desperate for a hit. Reasonable Doubt provided it in spades, resurrecting the label and launching a new, even more profitable phase that would make Def Jam one of the biggest labels in the world, and Jay-Z a megastar of global proportions.
But even within the hip-hop community, Jay-Z's arrival would not be greeted with unanimous praise. From the beginning Jay-Z would be dismissed by many as far more of a capitalist than an artist. Critics would snipe that Reasonable Doubt was carefully manufactured to appeal to the gangsta rap audience, with only a few token touches of depth to rope in the more intellectual fans. Even by hip-hop standards, Jay's blatant desire for mainstream success and riches was considered unseemly. As Jay-Z's career prospered, many hardcore hip-hop fans would recoil from his increasingly radio-friendly hits, his endless string of money-making business ventures, and his tabloid-friendly relationship with pop princess Beyonce. A persistent opinion arose that Jay-Z cared more about making money than art.
Judging by his comments on this DVD, Jay has apparently been deeply stung by those sentiments. Repeatedly, he takes pains to outline his writing process, to explain lines and lyrics, and to insist that he was always more interested in music than money. While this disc shows that he does have more talent and self-awareness than skeptics have given him credit for, it still doesn't prove conclusively that Reasonable Doubt is worthy of being labeled the masterpiece Jay and his admirers say it is.
Throughout the disc, Jay-Z endeavors to claim his stake as an artist, not just a businessman. In doing so, however, he sometimes veers into questionable territory. For instance, there's the quote presented above, which Jay repeats throughout the disc, as do others. True, Reasonable Doubt displayed moments of remorse and angst, which made it more complex than the sometimes one-dimensional bloodbaths that made up some of Dr. Dre's work (especially with N.W.A.). But to claim that the mixture of gangsta toughness with emotional depth was a wholly new idea is, at best, an exaggeration. Ready to Die, by the Notorious B.I.G., had just been released two years earlier, and that album definitely displayed several songs full of sorrow and anguish. If anything, that album, designed as a concept album (in the mold of the Who's Quadrophenia) about the life and death of a street hoodlum, was far more complex than Reasonable Doubt. On Ready to Die, the songs that glamorized hedonism and greed were logical plot points on the story of the gangster's rise. On this album, the party songs are just there, sitting side by side with the supposed cautionary tales, with no perspective whatsoever. For all his attempts to put his music in a specific context, Jay-Z takes no time here to try to explain how a sex rap like "Ain't No Nigga" can coexist with a more ambitious and thoughtful song like "D'Evils."
Indeed, it quickly becomes obvious that even though in every interview here, Jay-Z continues to try to downplay his financial ambitions in favor of his artistic ones, he really hasn't given that much thought to what his overall artistic vision actually is. The role of reflective artiste is unconvincing for Jay-Z, not just because it contradicts his public persona so forcefully, but also because he doesn't ever appear to have given his work, as opposed to his business strategy, this much consideration before. In that sense, Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt is revealing, but not necessarily in the way it was intended.
The Classic Albums series have always been uniformly excellent in outlining the thought process and technical details behind the making of an album. Even a viewer who isn't familiar with Jay-Z's music will find a lot of this intriguing. Watching Jay-Z listen to his vocal tracks and explain each lyric as he hears it is remarkable. The contributions from the other interviewees are a mixed bag. Producers DJ Premier and Cane & Ski are informative on their contributions to the recording process, including how they created the musical tracks and how they related to Jay's lyrics. Rappers Memphis Bleek and Sauce Money, who guested on the album, have amusing stories and memories to share about the recording sessions. Mary J. Blige (who sang on one song) and Kanye West, on the other hand, have little to say and are apparently included for name value. Significantly absent is Damon Dash, Jay's original manager and business partner in his label, Roc-A-Fella Records. After working as an inseparable team since the early '90s, the two had an acrimonious falling out in 2004, and no longer speak. His perspective on Jay's early years and the struggle to land a recording contract would have been fascinating to hear.
The disc is presented in 16:9 widescreen anamorphic, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. It looks and sounds pristine, and the mix highlights both the music and interviews perfectly.
As for extras, there are almost 40 minutes of additional interviews, split up into various individual chapters. Some of the participants do not appear in the finished cut, like former Def Jam president Lyor Cohen and Jonathan Mannion, who photographed the album cover. There are some interviews that probably should have made it into the final piece, like producers Sean and Knobody explaining the exact role of a producer in hip-hop and how it differs from a producer in rock. Also included are the original music videos for "Ain't No Nigga" (4:49) and "Can't Knock the Hustle" (4:59).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Classic Albums series initially concentrated on classic rock albums from the '60s and '70s, and has since grown to encompass '80s metal (like Judas Priest's British Steel) and even '90s alternative rock (like Nirvana's Nevermind). It's certainly high time the series embraced hip-hop, but the choice of Reasonable Doubt seems to be more driven by sales concerns rather than musical ones. True, the album was influential. But it's just as easy to argue that its influence was a negative one. Thanks to Jay-Z, Def Jam may have become a money-making machine in the late '90s, but at the cost of becoming a label that merely followed trends, rather than set them, as it did in the '80s. And the influence of Reasonable Doubt's glamorization of street capitalism would prove to have a fairly poisonous effect on many artists who followed in Jay's wake. Some would copy Jay-Z's style and subject matter without a shred of his wit and self-awareness. What resulted was a continuous and repetitive loop of imitations that would culminate in the artistic nadir that is 50 Cent, who really is the humorless one-dimensional caricature people would sometimes accuse Jay-Z himself of being.
In that regard, the DVD doesn't tell the whole story and doesn't put the album into the complete context that would be necessary to really judge if it belongs in the series. In fact, there are many other hip-hop albums that should have been considered before this one. Run-DMC's Raising Hell, the album that brought hip-hop into the rock mainstream and was the first to be conceived entirely as an album, rather than a single and some fillers, had a more far-reaching influence than Reasonable Doubt, and would have made a better candidate for this series. Similarly Public Enemy's landmark It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back laid down a template for electronic production that would be seen in non-hip-hop artists like Linkin Park and the Prodigy. It would also display a political consciousness that would result in the proselytizing of Rage Against the Machine. It, too, would have made a better choice.
Jay-Z fans will love this DVD, as it will have everything they need to know about the album. Fans of the Classic Albums series might enjoy a look, even if they don't know much about Jay-Z, as it's done with the series' usual attention to detail. However, because Jay-Z is unable or unwilling to fully understand the meaning of his public persona and how it has affected both his writing and hip-hop in general, the argument that Reasonable Doubt is a classic album is not entirely convincing.
Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt is convicted, beyond a reasonable doubt, of unintentionally revealing how Jay-Z's talent is sometimes overshadowed by his materialism. The court shows leniency, however, by granting that it still does show the general craft and care of the other Classic Albums entries.
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