The Black Album (2003) – A-
I think I speak for all of us when I say that we were entertained, Jay-Z. I mean, how could you not be? The production credits look like this: Just Blaze, Kanye West, The Neptunes, Timbaland, 9th Wonder and Rick Rubin. (DJ Quik too, though “Justify My Thug” is second-tier compared to the rest of these beats.) Almost every beat is great, distinguishing themselves with ear-worming sonics if the song didn’t provide an outright hook. And most do, in this casual way that he’ll forget how to do years later. Put it this way: who cares if Pharrell’s high-pitched hook on “Change Clothes” is kind of goofy when you have a drum loop that sounds like that? Plus: Jay-Z never sounded this good rapping over anything ever again; he sort of took “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars” to heart when he returned to the scene just a few years later. And while the beats are immediate, the replay value is in his lyrics: the myriad flow-switches on “My 1st Song”; the entire second verse of “99 Problems,” which blew my young mind when I first heard it when he introduces a canine to justify the hook (young me also thought the line “Well, you was doing 55 in a 54” was bothersome, since Canadian me doubted my Southern neighbors had such speed limits, but now I think it’s a great line considering the sociopolitical climate that still exists today). A few details: the absolute triumph underneath his mother’s bits on “December 4th”, plus Just Blaze’s oscillating treatment of the synthesized strings during the verses like a prolonged burst; how Timbaland’s beat on “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” kicks up so much dirt that you have to brush your shoulders to the chorus; how “99 Problems” rocks so hard that Danger Mouse pairing it with the Beatles’ hardest-rocking song didn’t even compare; the whine of the guitar and how it resets in place on “My 1st Song” (one of the best beats is done by one of the more unknown producers). Eminem, who probably would’ve rapped if not for the ‘retirement’ album demanding all attention on Jay-Z, provides “Moment of Clarity,” and despite the fact that almost all of Em’s productions sound hammy and dated, this one has a string line that’s memorable, plus the ominous bass rise during the choruses. But my favorite has and always will be Kanye West’s “Lucifer,” with both the catchiest vocal sample and the grooviest bass-line on the album. (Plus those drumstick clacks!)
The Blueprint^2: The Gift &the Curse (2002) – B-
Jay-Z follows up his best record the same way a lot of artists have followed up a classic: a double. Except this one ain’t very good, and not even in the same treasure-trove diving way of a lot of other sprawls. Compared to – um – previous blueprints, this doesn’t come close to Wu-Tang Forever or Life After Death, to say nothing of post-classic double albums outside of the genre, which makes sense considering he set off to work on this one mere months after The Blueprint. A crucial problem is that the thing takes a good twenty minutes to finally started: “A Dream” is a cheese-fest that’s simultaneously the worst thing about Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s careers, and the fact that the classic Biggie Smalls verse is here in full (well, sans the World Trade like Spider-Man because it’s 2002) which should alert you to just how much filler is about to approach. Neither “Hovi Baby” nor “The Watcher 2” are anything to write home about, especially when you have to wait about 4 minutes for Rakim to show up on the latter (“It’s like watching a movie through a panoramic screen / Which means, I can see the whole planet in the scene”; “My neighborhood is never sunny / In the place where the number one cause of death is money”). And I keep thinking that the sultriness of the first ever Jay-Z and Beyonce collaboration (ah, innocent times) would have made for a better closer than “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” (between that and “All Falls Down,” Kanye West was doing great things with acoustic guitars in hip-hop around that time). Some good stuff: the bongos of posse cut “Poppin’ Tags”, the piano flourishes of “Meet the Parents” (beat done in a single night according to Just Blaze), Kanye West’s “Some People Hate” (catchy chipmunk soul aside, plenty of other things of note like the string whirlwind, the bass-line and the rattling drums) and the driving piano of the title track and the fittingly theatrical soul (my favorite of the bunch). But so much to navigate through! And if you couldn’t get enough, there are some insufferable bonus tracks, and I have hard time figuring out of over-use of “bitches” in “Bitches & Sisters” is worse than how Jay-Z commands the ladies to “grind to the bass line” on “What They Gonna Do Part II,” with its un-grindable bass-line. And fuck me, the title bothers me so much: 1 squared is 1.
The Dynasty (2000) – C+
After years of building his own brand, Jay-Z turns to promotion of others’, namely Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel, plus the last Amil verse (one of those blink and you’ll miss it deals) on any Jay-Z album. It’s not very good, either as a Jay-Z solo album or a various artists comp; almost every beat is dated and/or forgettable. And yet, the perverse thing is that it had to happen for us to get to The Blueprint or The Black Album; The Dynasty marks the start of fruitful relationships with Just Blaze (who pairs Jay-Z’s acid with a fiery beat on “Intro”, getting you all riled up only for the wet blanket of “Change the Game”) and Kanye West (“This Can’t Be Life”, which is the best thing here). In between those, Pharrell sings a smooth hook on the twitchy beat of “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).” For what it’s worth, my favorite Jay-Z cover by some distance.