Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt vs. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate. Which Is Better?

One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?

“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.

Jay Z and Ice Cube released two of the most acclaimed solo albums that Priority Records was ever part of. Both Reasonable Doubt and Death Certificate are brilliant balancing acts of glamorizing life on the streets, and seeing beyond the here-and-now. Both of these platinum efforts reached the streets, the critics, and broached the mainstream, as master works from artists that would eventually become global household names. After Cube made a bold statement against his former N.W.A., bulldozing Efil4zaggin, he faces a Jay Z debut that bumped West Coast royalty in the form of C.M.W. Hustlers take on gangsters in this fair one, who shall prevail (click one then click “vote”).


Reasonable Doubt by Jay-Z

– First Round Winner (against Compton’s Most Wanted’s Music To Driveby, 75% to 25%)

The Jay Z heard in the features by Jaz-O, Original Flavor, and Big Daddy Kane was not the Shawn Carter that listeners received on Reasonable Doubt. Deferred in his late ’80s, early ’90s Rap ambitions, the Marcy Projects smooth-talker went to work—hustling in East Trenton, New Jersey. Based there, he traveled Interstate 95, trafficking drugs, risking his life, and learning an industry vastly different than the one of his passion. However, in the days of “baggin’ up at the Ramada,” or “takin’ it to Baltimore in a Ford Explorer,” Jay refined his craft, and grew into the MC that would become his Rap contribution. 1996’s Reasonable Doubt examined the life of a hustler with a Martin Scorsese tracking shot. Shawn Carter slowed down his flow, most of the time, to capture the minute details in plain English to make his experiences as a B-Boy-turned-D-Boy palpable, electrifying, and incredibly dramatic. Although Jay would shift his delivery to first gear on songs like “Feelin’ It,” “Can I Live,” and “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” he applied his rack-and-pinion lyricism to a conversational approach in other places. “Friend Or Foe” in particular, was able to capture dialogue, action, and dialect brilliantly as a one-man-show, in ways other MCs weren’t able to copy. Jay’s flow joined his vantage point as his tremendous selling features. Tunnel-banger “Ain’t No Nigga” showed how Jay did not need to rap fast as much as he excelled in rapid clarity. With Jaz’s classic break-beat arrangement, Jay made a slow sample play fast, as he and Fox’ Brown volleyed a his-and-hers duet, their own upcoming example of The Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Kim. With that, the Jigga flow became an instrument—a precise katana more than a reckless machine gun.

Reasonable Doubt advanced the ball for what was going on in New York—especially Brooklyn. Whereas Biggie’s narrative captured a corner-boy dynamic, Jay’s aesthetic was the watchful eye from the nearby Lexus. He was the guy watching the police, watching the young boys—that used to be him. Jiggaman didn’t raise his voice, he didn’t lose his cool, and he rarely cracked his own titanium exterior. This is what made album closer “Regrets” such a gripping display into the guarded soul of S. Carter. An arsenal of producers helped Jay found a sound all of his own. This included the man who helped launch the voices of Nas, Mobb Deep, Jeru The Damaja and Biggie—DJ Premier. 1980s Rap alum Clark Kent was on board, as was veteran Ski Beatz. Samples were instrumental to Jay-Z’s lone independent album’s success. However, that round-table of sound creators gave the clean-cut MC who had risen in a gritty world a crisp sound based around dirty Funk and Soul. In many ways, Jay’s debut was the tipping point that made 1996 a breakaway year for Rap’s sound and style. Reasonable Doubt became a source of inspiration to hungry fish in big ponds, and a soundtrack to a New York City existence outside the lines of the law.

Album Number: 1
Released: June 25, 1996
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Priority Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #23 (certified gold, September 1996; certified platinum, February 2002)
Song Guests: The Notorious B.I.G., Memphis Bleek, Jaz-O, Foxy Brown, Sauce Money, Mary J. Blige, Pain In Da Ass, Mecca
Song Producers: DJ Premier, Ski Beatz, DJ Clark Kent, Jaz-O, Irv Gotti, Sean C., Dahoud, Knobody, Dahoud, Peter Panic


Death Certificate by Ice Cube

– First Round Winner (against N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin, 83% to 17%)

For those starving for the Ice Cube they heard on Straight Outta Compton, Death Certificate signed a new lease on life. Following 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, a highly-acclaimed album recorded in New York City with The Bomb Squad at the helm, Ice Cube was back in his element, completely. Three months after Boyz N Tha Hood rocked theaters, Cube presented the audio companion to a cinematic look at life in South Central, California. Already a star, the MC checked his status and wealth at the door. Instead, O’Shea Jackson put himself in the shoes of an out-of-town drug dealer (“My Summer Vacation”), a visitor to the clinic (“Look Who’s Burnin'”), and a disenfranchised youth being followed around the stores he patronized (“Black Korea”). Almost all of Death Certificate is angry, unapologetic, and raw, but it is unarguably honest. Cube was still buckin’ shots at law enforcement and weaving in Rodney King. He criticized Black men with white women (“True To The Game”), and white men misusing Black women (“Horny Lil’ Devil”). Race and society, as perceived between the furrowed brow of the N.W.A. co-founder drove the way.

Without the charged East Coast production as a deliberate concept, Cube and original C.I.A. collaborator Sir Jinx were not out to imitate Dr. Dre’s sound. However, that same genre of ’70s Funk records that N.W.A. was using, were also part of the repertoire of Jinx, DJ Pooh, and Bobcat. These chops, whether throwing up a P-Funk flashlight or working down David Bowie’s “Fame” emphasized the drum, allowing Cube to emphatically make his points. Cube, such a rhythmic and commanding MC, lived between the wide grooves of Funk elements and bass drums. With songs like “A Bird In The Hand” and “Alive On Arrival” so grand, it took big beats to match. In between the bigger points, Cube could still unabashedly make novelty and porno Rap, and do it as well as anybody—including his former band-mates. After not directly addressing N.W.A. on the previous LP, “No Vaseline” would close out Death Certificate as perhaps the most cutthroat diss record not only of its time, but all time. Bottled up feelings reacted to Niggaz4Life in a way where one man appeared to take on four, and come out untouched. For a song that pulled no punches in its imagery of rape, lynching, and antisemitic remarks, no one could say that Ice Cube was not an incredible MC. That’s just it with Death Certificate. Regardless of Cube’s position on race, gender, or survival tactics, he presented himself as such a convincing character. Adamant that he was not trying to be a role-model, the Rap superstar was clearly reaching the mass audience with his emphatic deliveries and strong opinions. Before such terms existed, especially in the Hip-Hop space, Death Certificate showed how deeply Ice Cube understood his brand, and how to best leverage it.

Album Number: 2 (solo)
Released: October 29, 1991
Label: Priority Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #1 (certified gold, October 1991; certified platinum, December 1991)
Song Guests: King T, Kam, Threat, WC & The Maad Circle (TK), J-Dee, Khalil Abdul Muhammad
Song Producers: (self), Sir Jinx, The Boogiemen (DJ Pooh, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, & Rashad Coes)

So which album belongs in the 1990s Top 10? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Finding The GOAT: The Albums