Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001) – A
It really was a blueprint. Not just of things to come but rather because within the album’s 64 minutes, The Blueprint covers a wide range of hip-hop tropes (ie. the diss track of “Takeover,” the club track of “Izzo”, the players’ anthem of “Girls Girls Girls”, the sensitive thug of “Song Cry” – we all need hugs indeed), a wide range of hip-hop topics (ie. in between Jay-Z addressing critics in his first verse on “Renegade” is a reflection of his childhood and broken family) over a wide range of different sounds that are now well-engrained within hip-hop (ie. the orchestral flourishes on “The Ruler’s Back”, a classic rock act gets sampled on “Takeover” and there’s the modernized but r-e-s-p-e-c-t-ful treatment of soul throughout; the sinister bursts of strings on “Renegade”, linked by the bass-line and the clack of the percussion). I’m not saying that this was the first time these tropes, topics and sounds were explored in the genre. Instead, I’m merely positing that the album is a blueprint because it just explores them well: a classic album that achieves its status by having no bad songs and a handful of great ones. That’s how you fucking do it! Yes, absolutely: I really wish Biz Markie didn’t blurt out the title words of “Girls Girls Girls” the icky way he does (part of a concept of having a revolving door of rappers hit the hook, including Q-Tip and Slick Rick), or that “Hola Hovito” had a better hook and a less cluttered beat. And every time I think that I’ve played “Izzo” and “Jigga that Nigga” out over multiple listens, I can’t help but smile to hear them again (the exotic sitar on “Jigga!”). Frankly, because of all of that, I’d almost readily state that this is the rare sort of album where the second half exceeds the first. Almost readily: “Takeover” exists, and there’s a higher body count here than in John Wick or what have you. What’s specifically great is just how casually he dismisses Mobb Deep (“I got money stacks bigger than you” and “We don’t believe you, you need more people”) in comparison to the more elaborate takedown of Nas (itself a marvel); how fucking good the threat of “I’ll detach you” sounds, even removed from the context of what follows. And that ending couplet is just the perfect way to cap off a song like this, “And all you other cats throwing shots at Jigga / You only get half a bar – fuck y’all niggas!” But the second half is definitely more rewarding: Kanye providing the best beat on the album (“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”) and Bink!’s chipmunk soul on “All I Need” (initially thought this was a Kanye West joint when I first heard it). Whereas his previous albums were all let down by features, only one appears here and it’s Eminem at the absolute height of his abilities (the highlight reel: the gutteral “nah nah”, the internal rhymes in “But I’m debated, disputed, hated and viewed in America”, the alliteration of “You fucking do-gooders, too bad you couldn’t do good at marriage” and later, “I’m a motherfucking spiteful, delightful eyeful”), and his presence inspires Jay-Z to some of his best rapping on the album too (any reports of that Eminem completely decimating Jay-Z are hyperbolic; the two are much closer than often reported). What else is there to say, really? Jay-Z albums have always been about one thing, and that thing has never been subtlety. His best album.
Jay-Z – Kingdom Come (2006) – C+
The first song I heard from Kingdom Come was “Show Me What You Got” in 2010, and I didn’t understand the hate: Just Blaze nabbed quite the horn hook. And opener “The Prelude” kept the goods going: a bass-line that we might’ve heard a million times before, but what’s better is the lyrical horn line that comes up later. Combined with that bass-line and the string interval throughout, B-Money (who?) created a film-ready, yes, but elegant, night-time jazz-influenced beat to open the album. Then the rest of the album happens. Jay-Z, coming out of a self-imposed retirement, goes about taking the world by storm (again) by bigging up everything: feature-heavy choruses (in stark contrast to The Black Album‘s practically feature-less set-up and whereas Beyonce was reined in on “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” she’s unleashed on “Hollywood”) over anthemic beats (including one by Chris Martin). His usual producers provide predictably rousing (Just Blaze), soulful (Kanye West) or rhythmic beats (The Neptunes), but they’re not enough to carry a lazy Jay-Z over the course of those songs’ run-times. It’s here where he starts his decline with verses built out of (unfunny) one-liners: “So on some Dr. Spock shit, we started our trek“; the myriad superhero references of the title track, and I guess we should thank our stars that he didn’t try to deploy something like that nowadays when the superhero craze got out of hand. Dr. Dre’s beats fair a bit better: “Lost One” has a good piano line, bolstered by Dre’s orchestral touch (but suffers a plodding beat); “30 Something” has a good bass-line. All told, we should have known from the cover: not only does he look sort of confused, but the red filter has no place in his mostly monochrome album cover discography.
Nas – Hip Hop Is Dead (2006) – C+
Lower “ekkelon” beats. Quoting the man himself, “If you asking, why is hip hop dead?’ / It’s a pretty good chance, you the reason it died, man.” (“Thief’s Theme Remake,” “Still Dreaming”)