photo & text by nacrowe
to be honest i was not a fan of this JAY-Z record when it came out.
when VOL. 2... HARD KNOCK LIFE (ROC-A-FELLA, 1998) was released i was attending middle school while living abroad in NIGERIA and was surrounded by peers that were into CYPRESS HILL and the recently deceased TUPAC SHAKUR and THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G., as well as NYC HIP HOP groups like A TRIBE CALLED QUEST and WU-TANG CLAN. i distinctly remember returning to NEW JERSEY and having trend-chasing, FUBU-wearing cousins that were into more mainstream stuff like P DIDDY, MA$E and later JA RULE. so that was my initial bias against JAY-Z and this record.
i've come around since then. sort of.
i think HIP HOP was in an interesting phase at the end of the 1990s, with SOUTHERN HIP HOP acts like OUTKAST not emerging as a cultural force quite yet and the mantle of top MC was still up for grabs after the untimely murders of the aforementioned TUPAC and BIGGIE. if this record comes off commercial and anthemic with lots of R&B-affected beats and song structures (a la "HARD KNOCK LIFE"), that was absolutely intentional and by design. with production credits by the likes of TIMBALAND, SWIZZ BEATZ, DJ PREMIER, THE 45 KING, IRV GOTTI, JERMAINE DUPRI and KID CAPRI and guest appearances by DMX, TOO $HORT, JADAKISS, JA RULE, MEMPHIS BLEEK, FOXY BROWN and BEANIE SIGEL this record definitely stood out from its predecessors for its sonic variety, (which basically discarding the more minimal beats utilized previously) and its abundant use of upcoming and established MCs.
for me its a mix-bag record, a definite downgrade from his debut in REASONABLE DOUBT (ROC-A-FELLA, 1996) and not in the same league as later career highlights like THE BLUEPRINT (ROC-A-FELLA, 2001) and THE BLACK ALBUM (ROC-A-FELLA, 2003). there are two absolutely killer tracks in "NIGGA WHAT, NIGGA WHO" and "CAN I GET A..." that stand up there with anything in his discography, but too often trite, reductive faire like "MONEY, CASH, HOES" and "RIDE OR DIE" is what this record relies on. too me it almost feels like a warped feedback loop that is very common in modern country music whereby an artist writes about his/her life in a manner that is meant to chase a desired audience and then that audience takes that message to heart, only perpetuating it further and providing more of an incentive for similarly themed future tracks. it just comes off inauthentic because it appears to come from a place of clout-chasing. but you have to remember that back in the late 1990s there were no internet music blogs or social media, so the only way to gain marketshare was through being commercial. so i get the dilemma he was facing in attempting to claim the mantle of top MC. it makes sense. at the same time its difficult listening back to corny JAY-Z songs dealing with DRUGS, SEX and VIOLENCE during this period. later he will become more personal and i would argue, more compelling as an artist and a cultural figure. he does get better.
obviously this is not that peak period in his career quite yet so its an interesting moment in time to revisit. for my money during this period it is better to check out the work of NAS or OUTKAST maybe even slightly later records by DEAD PREZ.