Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996) – A-
During the best songs (especially in the stretch of songs from “Politics As Usual” through “Can I Live”), the flow is so conversational and the beats are so smooth, Reasonable Doubt achieves a friendly vibe that’s rarely been imitated since – certainly not in Jay-Z’s discography. It gets to the point that the sample of Carlito’s Way is deployed almost as if to remind you that despite all of that, there’s violence on these streets. (A few years later, the same sample will be deployed in a somewhat forced way to remind you that it’s still Jay-Z despite having made it far and away from said violence.) That being said, I’ve never thought this album compared to either Illmatic or Ready to Die, to use two other classic east coast hip-hop albums from around the same time, to say nothing of The Blueprint or – yes – The Black Album, even if his rapping never reached these heights again. And to be sure, the rapping is great; you can take any couplet from any song and it’ll be worth deeper analysis: “Nine to five is how you survive, I ain’t trying to survive / I’m tryna live it to the limit and love it a lot” (“D’Evils”); “Y’all niggas lunching, punching the clock / My function is to make much and lay back munching” (“Can’t Knock the Hustle”); the entire first verse of “22 Two’s.” And my personal favorite, how he disses everyone else in the game so casually: “Who wanna bet us that we don’t touch lettuce / Stack cheddars forever / Live treacherous, all the et ceteras / To the death of us: me and my confidants, we shine / You feel the ambiance, y’all niggas just rhyme” on “Dead Presidents II” (the mere idea of deploying “the et ceteras” to mean all the things he owns, to say nothing of having it rhyme with “lettuce,” was a stroke of genius). As mentioned, there’s a slight drop-off after “Can I Live”; should’ve kept the rapping focus on Jay-Z (all the guest rappers appear in the second half), plus the beats become are sometimes merely serviceable (ie. the bass-line of “Ain’t No Nigga” and the strings of “Bring It On”). But the beats before then are top-tier: how loop of the female vocal sample on “Politics As Usual” feels like its building towards the capping string line; the great piano loops in the three song stretch of “Dead Presidents II” (the album’s best), “Feelin’ It” (the album’s catchiest) and “D’Evils” (wherein DJ Premier does a wintry piano line that could’ve been Havoc’s doing); the slow horn melody of “Can I Live” and closer “Regrets” getting everyone into the cigar-smoke-filled lounge (that percussion! Second-best beat on the album).
Jay-Z – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997) – B-
The best songs on this album are the ones that continue in the spirit of Reasonable Doubt: “Street Is Watching” (“Look, if I shoot you, I’m brainless / But if you shoot me, then you’re famous / What’s a nigga to do?”) and “Where I’m From” (“Where the drugs czars evolve, and thugs are at odds / At each other’s throats for the love of foreign cars / Where cats catch cases, hoping the judge R-and-R’s”) and, especially, the opener, wherein Jay-Z drops two great, conceptually-realized verses (“Rhyme No More” keeps the rhyme up for as long as it can) over two distinct beats by DJ Premier (maybe they could have been better segued, but I just take it as two distinct songs). On the other hand, the worst song is “I Know What Girls Like,” which features a heavily processed chorus from Lil’ Kim. (Interesting beat, though: the last beat of each measure sounds like a machete clash.) In between these two extremes are “The City Is Mine,” which manages both the old Jay-Z and the more commercial-focused one (a slick saxophone backdrop to bolster Backstreet’s choruses) and “Imaginary Player” (nice bass!) and a lot of easily-ignore-able songs, especially in the second half. So far, Jay-Z has dropped two trilogies, and within each, none of the installments have anything to do with one another.
Jay-Z – Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998) – B-
(As of 2013,) Jay-Z ranks this one fourth-best in his discography, which makes sense when you consider that this is his best-selling album, which doesn’t make sense (I mean, still?), reverting the first thought back to nonsense. Yes, sampling the chorus for “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” from Annie was a stroke of genius, partly because I understand why Jay-Z was so fond of it, but also because it guaranteed a chorus that would rattle in our heads for decades. And yet, serious question: do people actively seek this thing out? Because it’s one of the most cloying choruses in Jay-Z’s discography, which is saying something. And yes, the other three singles are all good, and methinks he should’ve kept Amil on deck to help with hook-duty instead of letting her run rampant on Vol. 3. But the album as a whole is filled with beats that heavily rely on a single glorified sound effect to carry them the whole way through: the synthesized glissandos of “Money, Cash, Hoes” that likely sounded much better in ’98 is probably the best example. Sometimes this extremely minimalist style of production works (ie. there’s the thin and speedy string line of “I Should Die” (which comes up again on “Can I Get A”)), and sometimes it doesn’t (ie. the uninspired Talking Heads sample on “It’s Alright” (yeah, there’s also a Kraftwerk sample but it’s not like it’s adding anything)). And yes, Jay-Z flows well throughout, but he’s only doing it on about 60% of the album.