So let's start by saying Reasonable Doubt is Jay-Z's best album. We've heard it enough times at this point that the spoken word that opens "Can I Live", the cool headed menace of "Fried or Foe", the wise beyond his years, resigned, dutiful weariness permeating "D'evils" and "Dead Presidents", the pitch perfect production that complements it all is familiar to us as The Happy Birthday song. It's one of Rap's very few perfect albums but it's a consensus favorite. The album has lost all its excitement and mystery, so what we're really debating as we hash out Blueprint vs. The Life & Times of S. Carter or Roc La Familia vs. Hard Knock Life is what album gets the silver medal.
For me the winner just might be it's chronological successor, In My Lifetime. At the time it was released, I was not alone in thinking Hov had hit a Sophomore slump. (Jay-Z himself conceded to The Source the album was disappointment on the eve of Hard Knock Life) But it has aged incredibly well. The balance isn't so much in juggling street singles and pop as he did pretty masterfully on Hard Knock Life and The Blueprint, a majority of the album warrants a video. The balance comes in the singles themselves. The witty "A Million and One Questions" might be his best work with Primo, "Streets is Watching" and "The City Is Mine" are glossy Usual Suspects stylized Goines dramas but Jay carries both and they're classics of their genre. "I Know What Girls Like" and "(Always be my) Sunshine" are two of Jay's worst songs that aren't on BP 2 but they're more than balanced by one of his best pimp anthems "Who you wit 2" and the slick "Imaginary Player".
But it's his hood concessions "Where I'm from", "Face Off", "Real Niggas" and today's feature "You Must Love Me" that make this album my favorite to dust off every few months and burn through. It's some of Jay's best writing, a lofty sentiment for an artist so consistent and prolific. "You Must Love Me" was his first, and best introspective song, taking three difficult anecdotes from his life and writing to theme, a model he invented here and would revisit many times. "You Must Love Me" feels raw, is detailed in a way "Song Cry" and his contribution to "This Can't Be Life" aren't. The song carries a self admonishment, an admission of guilt that separates it from the others. There's still the obvious, self serving wailing Jay has always practiced, even when in the wrong he wins the shoot-out and has the girl who's willing to play mule, but he's doing his best job explaining his remorse, where he fucked up exactly. There are so many moments, particularly in the vignette dedicated to the mentor he faces off with. The verse has an immediacy, he puts us in his shoes and head ("High off, more than weed") in ways he'd never accomplished before and has not since. It's drama that doesn't feel forced or contrived and gives this great album the send off it deserves.