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Jay-Z - Topic

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 Play

After the death of friend and compatriot the Notorious B.I.G. in early 1997, Jay-Z made his claim for the title of best rapper on the East Coast (or anywhere) with his sophomore shot, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Though the productions are just a bit flashier and more commercial than on his debut, Jay-Z remained the tough street rapper, and even improved a bit on his flow, already one of the best in the world of hip-hop. Still showing his roots in the Marcy projects (he's surrounded by a group of kids in a picture on the back cover), Jay-Z struts the line between project poet and up-and-coming player, and manages to have it both ways. He slings some of the most cutting rhymes heard in hip-hop, brushing off a legion of rappers riding his coattails on "Imaginary Player." For "Streets Is Watching," high-tension background strings and vocal samples from the gangster film Sleeper emphasize the pitfalls of a rapper everyone's gunning for ("If I shoot you, I'm brainless/But if you shoot me, then you famous"). The song leads right into "Friend or Foe '98," the sequel to a track from Reasonable Doubt that only increases the sense of paranoia. But Jay-Z plays the ghetto celebrity equally well, and continues his slick, Cristal-sipping image with "I Know What Girls Like" (featuring Puff Daddy and Lil' Kim), "(Always Be My) Sunshine" (featuring Babyface and Foxy Brown), and "Lucky Me." Puff Daddy's Bad Boy stable is responsible for almost half the productions, and though they often verge far into pop territory, Jay-Z usually rescues them from a complete crossover. (Ironically, the most commercial production is actually from Teddy Riley on "The City Is Mine," with an unfortunate interpolation of Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City.") Having one of the toughest producers around (Premier) as well as one of the slickest (Puff Daddy) sometimes creates a disconnect between who Jay-Z really is and who he wants to become, but he balances both personas with the best rapping heard in the rap game since the deaths of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. ~ John Bush, Rovi

Magna Carta...Holy Grail Play

Like few other album openers, "Holy Grail" encapsulates what follows it and reflects a particular point in an artist's career. It's a vigorous if not particularly moving track, principally produced by Timbaland and J-Roc, which expresses bewilderment and conflicting emotions about rising from poverty to opulence. The first of a few early-'90s references is made -- the chorus of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is quoted -- and Jay-Z is as triumphant and as troubled as ever. He doesn't enter until the 80-second mark, preceded by a theatrical verse and hook from summer 2013 tour partner Justin Timberlake. As with a significant portion of Magna Carta...Holy Grail, it has a dashed-off, created between business engagements quality -- maybe there wasn't enough time to ask Timberlake who translated his version of the Hebrew Bible ("Sippin' from your cup 'til it runneth over"). Likewise, the album's remainder is sporadically energized, played safe with just enough timely pop-culture references and sonic curveballs to demonstrate that Jay-Z still has his finger on the pulse. He has Timbaland and J-Roc -- also co-producers of Timberlake's 20/20 Experience -- involved with most of the tracks, highlighted by a pair that sample Adrian Younge's 2011 psych-soul masterpiece Something About April, as well as some brilliantly bleary and prickly work on "F.U.T.W." Significantly lighter lifting is done by a cast that includes the likes of Pharrell and Swizz Beatz, as well as Kyambo Joshua and Mike Dean, who shine on the scuffed-up Gonjasufi-sampling finale "Nickels and Dimes." For all the lyrical flaunting of material wealth -- revolutionary art, designer fashion, yachting, globe-trotting -- the greatest ostentatious display here is in the enlistment of 2012/2013's hottest producer, Mike Will, for a single minute-length track. Unsurprisingly, it's the wildest, most advanced moment on the album. He still drops some casually brilliant reminders that he remains one of the best, as on "Oceans" ("Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/I don't even like Washingtons in my pocket") and on "Nickels and Dimes" ("Pardon my hubris, Stanley Kubrick/With eyes wide shut, I could cook up two bricks"). ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Blueprint 3 Play

When Jay-Z first made a series out of his best album, 2001's The Blueprint, it became a game of high expectations. The Blueprint of the first volume was Jay-Z as vital as he'd ever been, storming back to the hardcore after a few years of commercial success. The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse was a complete turn, a set of half-cocked crossovers, bloated to bursting with guest features that obscured his talents. The Blueprint 3 is somewhere between the two, closer to the vitality and energy of the original but not without the crossover bids and guest features of the latter (albeit much better this time). Kanye West is in the producer's chair for seven tracks, and it's clear he was reaching for the same energy level as the original Blueprint (which he produced). "What We Talkin' About" begins the album with a wave of surging, oppressive synth, while Jay-Z enumerates (with an intriguing lack of detail) what he's said and what's been said about him, ending with a nod not to the past but the future (and Barack Obama). West also produced the second, "Thank You," and while it starts with typical Jay-Hova brio, the last verse piles on the unrelenting criticism of unnamed rappers doomed to weak sales. There's plenty more lyrical violence to come, but most of the targets are much safer than they were eight years earlier. (Jay doesn't sound very convincing when he claims in "D.O.A. [Death of Auto-Tune]" that it's not "politically correct" to rail against one of the most reviled trends in pop music during the 2000s.) From there, he branches out with a calculating type of finesse, drawing in certain demographics via a roster of guests, from Young Jeezy (hardcore) to Drake (teens) to Kid Cudi (the backpacker crowd). The king of the crossovers here is "Empire State of Mind," a New York flag-waver with plenty of landmark name-dropping that turns into a great anthem with help on the chorus from Alicia Keys. The Blueprint 3 isn't a one-man tour de force like the first. Jay is upstaged once or twice by his guests, and while the productions are stellar throughout -- Timbaland appears three times, and No I.D. gets multiple credits also -- it's clear there's less on Jay's mind this time. Not tuned out like on Kingdom Come, but more content with his dominance as a rap godfather in 2009. ~ John Bush, Rovi

The Dynasty Roc la Familia Play

At the time of The Dynasty Roc la Familia's release, Jay-Z had already established himself as a towering figure in the rap world. His previous two albums -- Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter -- spawned numerous gigantic hits and were filled the brim with the biggest hitmakers in rap: producers like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz; rappers like Juvenile and DMX. So rather than try to one-up these albums with yet more super-producers and big-name rappers, Jay-Z took a different approach on The Dynasty. He brought in a stable of up-and-coming producers (the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Kanye West) and handed the mic to his in-house roster of Roc-a-Fella rappers (Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Freeway) with the intention of bolstering his rap "dynasty" (i.e., Roc-a-Fella). The approach works well. The Dynasty Roc la Familia still sounds like a Jay-Z album, but it's different enough from his past work to make it exciting and unique. In particular, the productions set Jigga apart from his peers in 2000, especially "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)" by the Neptunes, a fun, playful song a world apart from the rugged Ruff Ryder beats Swizz Beatz had been offering Jay-Z a year earlier. In terms of rapping, the omnipresence of Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek spices up "Parking Lot Pimpin'," another album highlight, but is a drag on other songs, where Jay-Z seems like a guest on his own album. Guest appearances by Snoop Dogg and Scarface are much more welcome, two of only three non-Roc-a-Fella guest features here. The Dynasty plays overall like a Roc-a-Fella mixtape rather than a Jay-Z album, which means you'll have to endure a lot of promotional posse tracks, particularly toward the end of the album. Still, the few standout tracks here are career highlights for Jay-Z and well worth wading through the occasional filler to find. ~ Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

The Blueprint 2.1 Play

Jay-Z kept The Blueprint incredibly tight, focusing on a single sound and letting nothing interfere with some of the best raps of his career. The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse was a radically different record, with the most respected rapper in the business trying on a range of styles, collaborating with a lot of guests and working with an army of producers (Neptunes, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Heavy D, Kanye West). Four months after its release, Roc-A-Fella issued Blueprint 2.1, a version of the record that cut in half the running time of the original and delivered most of the best material -- the Neptunes' bounce track "Excuse Me Miss," the horn-driven blast of "The Watcher 2" produced by Dr. Dre (featuring Truth Hurts), and the record's biggest hit, "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," a slick R&B crossover with Beyoncé Knowles. Just like the original, Blueprint 2.1 ranges from unapologetically sexed-up party joints to theatrical epics and even takes in a feature for the prince of rock Lenny Kravitz ("Guns & Roses"). Yes, it is slightly more focused than its two-disc predecessor, but it's still a sprawling commercial monster that lacks the creativity of The Blueprint. ~ John Bush, Rovi

Collision Course Play

Mash-ups -- two songs stuck together that were never meant to be stuck together -- have their roots in the bedrooms and basements of computer-savvy music geeks who spend countless hours sticking Christina Aguilera's vocals over the Strokes' chugging backbeat or Missy Elliott's raps over George Michael, Joy Division, the Cure, and about a thousand others. MP3s were the medium of choice, white-label 12"s a distant second. It seemed like it was time to put a fork in the pranky genre when collections like The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever and Soulwax's As Heard on Radio Soulwax series exposed the mash-up to a wider audience, but then Danger Mouse came along. His headline-making Grey Album -- Jay-Z's Black Album vs. the Beatles' White Album -- inspired a ton of spirited imitations, and most likely the MTV-spawned, artists-involved Collision Course. The fact that the artists are involved with the project totally goes against the mash-up philosophy, but luckily Linkin Park -- who are revealed through the DVD as the main architects of the EP -- have that pop-loving prankster spirit and don't let their high-profile, well-funded life ruin it. The liner notes talk of a "once-in-a-lifetime performance" and "music history," but Collision Course is just plain old fun and all the better because of it. Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" sits nicely on top of Linkin Park's "Lying from You" on the CD's studio version, but it's the fist-pumping live version on the DVD that really justifies Collision Course's existence. The Z-man -- who's "retired" from the rap game while being busier than ever -- has had his excellent "99 Problems" rocked up before, so the version here with Linkin Park's "Points of Authority" and "One Step Closer" isn't so much the revelation the liner-note hyperbole makes it out to be, but it's got an awesome beat and you can still dance to it. If the CD were released on its own, the collection wouldn't be as exciting. Linkin Park's genuine excitement about the project on the "behind the scenes" segment of the DVD is infectious, and watching the furious and fast teaming of "Jigga What/Faint" teeter on the edge of falling apart is gripping. Check the DVD first, and then throw the CD in the car for when you feel half-mack, half-punk. It's doubtful mash-ups will survive corporate handling this well again, and to paraphrase a post-show Linkin Parker, Collision Course is awesomely fun. ~ David Jeffries, Rovi

Hard Knock Life Play

Coming on the heels of two strong records that revealed the extent of Jay-Z's talents, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (it may be titled Vol. 2, but it's his third album, arguably his fourth if you count the Streets Is Watching soundtrack) is a little bit of a relative disappointment. Jay-Z had established himself as a savvy, street-smart rapper on those two records, but with Hard Knock Life he decides to shoot for crossover territory, for better and for worse. At his best, he shows no fear -- witness how the title track shamelessly works a Broadway showstopper from Annie into a raging ghetto cry, yet keeps it smooth enough for radio. It's a stunning single, but unfortunately, it promises more than the rest of the album can deliver. Jay-Z remains a first-rate lyricist and MC, but too often his subjects are tired, especially since he winds up with no new revelations. Unfortunately, the same could be said for his music. For every "Hard Knock Life," there are a couple of standard post-gangsta jams that don't catch hold -- and that's really too bad, because the best moments (including several tracks produced by such stars as Timbaland, Kid Capri, and Jermaine Dupri) are state-of-the-art, R&B-inflected mainstream hip-hop. And that's the problem -- before, Jay-Z wasn't trying to play by the rules of the mainstream, but here he's trying to co-opt them. At times he does, but the times that fall flat have less strength or integrity than their predecessors, and that's what makes the entire record not quite as effective, despite its numerous high points. [Shortly after its initial release, Hard Knock Life was reissued with a pair of bonus tracks: "It's Alright," pulled from the Streets Is Watching soundtrack, and "Money Ain't a Thang," a catchy collabo single from Jermaine Dupri's Life in 1472 album.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Reasonable Doubt Play

Before Jay-Z fashioned himself into hip-hop's most notorious capitalist, he was a street hustler from the projects who rapped about what he knew -- and was very, very good at it. Skeptics who've never cared for Jigga's crossover efforts should turn to his debut, Reasonable Doubt, as the deserving source of his legend. Reasonable Doubt is often compared to another New York landmark, Nas' Illmatic: A hungry young MC with a substantial underground buzz drops an instant classic of a debut, detailing his experiences on the streets with disarming honesty, and writing some of the most acrobatic rhymes heard in quite some time. (Plus, neither artist has since approached the street cred of his debut, The Blueprint notwithstanding.) Parts of the persona that Jay-Z would ride to superstardom are already in place: He's cocky bordering on arrogant, but playful and witty, and exudes an effortless, unaffected cool throughout. And even if he's rapping about rising to the top instead of being there, his material obsessions are already apparent. Jay-Z the hustler isn't too different from Jay-Z the rapper: Hustling is about living the high life and getting everything you can, not violence or tortured glamour or cheap thrills. In that sense, the album's defining cut might not be one of the better-known singles -- "Can't Knock the Hustle," "Dead Presidents II," "Feelin' It," or the Foxy Brown duet, "Ain't No Nigga." It just might be the brief "22 Two's," which not only demonstrates Jay-Z's extraordinary talent as a pure freestyle rapper, but also preaches a subtle message through its club hostess: Bad behavior gets in the way of making money. Perhaps that's why Jay-Z waxes reflective, not enthusiastic, about the darker side of the streets; songs like "D'Evils" and "Regrets" are some of the most personal and philosophical he's ever recorded. It's that depth that helps Reasonable Doubt rank as one of the finest albums of New York's hip-hop renaissance of the '90s. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

Vol. 3: The Life and Times of Shawn Carter Play

After the crossover success of 1998's Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (complete with highly publicized samples from Annie), Jay-Z returned to the streets on his fourth proper album overall, 1999's Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter. A set of hard-hitting tracks with some of the best rhymes of Jay-Z's career, the album is much more invigorating than its predecessor, and almost as consistently entertaining as his best album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. As good as his rapping has become, the production here plays a large part as well. Befitting his superstar status, Jay-Z boasts the cream of hip-hop producers: Timbaland (four tracks total), DJ Premier, Swizz Beatz, and Rockwilder. DJ Premier's "So Ghetto," Timbaland's "Snoopy Track" (with Juvenile), and DJ Clue's "Pop 4 Roc" are innovative tracks that push the rhymes along but never intrude too much on Jay-Z's own flow. If this album doesn't quite make it up to Jay-Z's best, though, it's the fault of a few overblown productions, like "Dope Man" and "Things That U Do" (with Mariah Carey). ~ John Bush, Rovi

American Gangster Play

"Y'all n*ggas got me really confused out there. I make 'Big Pimpin' or 'Give It to Me,' one of those -- that had me as the greatest writer of the 21st century. I make some thought-provoking sh*t -- y'all question whether he fallin' off." When you've built up a back catalog of eight studio albums and walk the earth as one of the biggest, most high-profile artists of the '90s and 2000s, you're bound to get some mixed signals from those who pay attention to you. However, the jury did not take long to reach a verdict on 2006's Kingdom Come: the consensus on it (as a major fall-off) was as swift and strong as the consensus on Reasonable Doubt (as a classic). Once used copies of Kingdom Come became easily attainable for less than two dollars, it was apparent the next Jay-Z album might not be so anticipated. He'd need to get some fresh inspiration and make some corrective maneuvers.
Fortunately, both came unexpectedly -- rather than by desperate force -- after he saw an advance screening of the early-'70s period piece American Gangster, which played a direct role in nine of the songs on this album of the same name. While several tracks connected to specific scenes are also rooted in productions trading in the regal grit that made up so much '70s soul, the album is not a straight narrative, broken up by tracks like the boom-clap of "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" (produced by Bigg D) and the glitzed-out pair of "I Know" (a half-icing Neptunes layer cake) and "Ignorant Shit" (where Just Blaze transforms the Isleys' quiet storm staple "Between the Sheets" into a high-gloss anthem). Combined with the tracks laced with '70s soul -- including six produced by Diddy & LV & Sean C, one by Toomp, and two by a newly forged partnership between Jermaine Dupri and No I.D. -- it all adds up to an album that seems nearly out of time, at least when it comes to the years spanning Jay-Z's career, without resembling a true regression. "Success," for instance, takes its lead from The Black Album's "Public Service Announcement," with blaring organ over heavily weighted drum knocks, yet despite the likeness, it's one of the album's highlights. And while Jay mentions American Gangster and protagonist Frank Lucas directly, and intersperses some tracks with dialogue, the connection does not overshadow the album. It's not like he's yelling "Shaft's Big Score 2K7!" or "Leonard Part Six, Part Two!" It's all as natural as Scarface riffing off Scarface.
And that might be the most common complaint about the album -- it's really just another case of Jay-Z being Jay-Z, albeit with different presentation. Unless you know each verse from Reasonable Doubt through Kingdom Come, it might sound like he's dealing with no variation on well-worn themes, the exact same thoughts and emotions that make up older tracks about his past as a drug dealer -- the rise, the arrogance, the conflictedness, the fall, and all stages in between. When he's in the right frame of mind, though, as he is throughout much of the album's duration (it is a bit sluggish in spots), he's as affective with his subject as Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye were with romance. Just as key, the level of insolence and spite on display here is as high as it has ever been. "I got watches I ain't seen in months/Apartment at the Trump, I only slept in it once/N*ggas said Hova was over, such dummies/Even if I fell I land on a bunch of money" has more of those qualities than all of Kingdom Come. One could say that's not really saying much, but regardless of context, this is a very good Jay-Z album. He is, for the most part, doing what he has done before: what he does best. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Watch the Throne Play

Initially intended to be an EP, Watch the Throne -- from rap superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West, aka the Throne -- took on a number of forms prior to its release as a full-length album. Nailed down during January 2011 sessions at the Mercer Hotel in New York City, the aggressive and boast-heavy set features vocal appearances from Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and La Roux's Elly Jackson, as well as writing and production assistance from the likes of Swizz Beatz, the Neptunes, the RZA, Om’Mas Keith, and Terius “The-Dream” Nash., Rovi

The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse Play

Jay-Z kept The Blueprint incredibly tight, focusing on a single sound and letting nothing interfere with some of the best raps of his career. The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse is a radically different record, with the most respected rapper in the business trying on a range of styles, collaborating with a lot of guests (from Rakim to Lenny Kravitz to Scarface to Beyoncé Knowles), and working with an army of producers (Neptunes, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Heavy D, Kanye West). No one else in hip-hop possesses enough power of personality to carry a 110-minute double album, and if Jay-Z can't quite manage it either, he certainly delivers some solid material in the process. The discs are split into "The Gift" and "The Curse," though there's no concept in view, just a loose collection of tracks ranging from unapologetically sexed-up party joints to theatrical epics and even taking in a Dirty South feature for Outkast's Big Boi. It's clear Jay-Z's in control even here, and though his raps can't compete with the concentrated burst on The Blueprint, there's at least as many great tracks on tap, if only listeners have enough time to find them. Good choices for highlights include the Neptunes' bounce track "Excuse Me Miss," the horn-driven blast of "The Watcher 2" produced by Dr. Dre (featuring Truth Hurts), and "I Did It My Way," which balances the trad-pop singalong of "Hard Knock Life" with the digital drumrolls of "The Takeover." ~ John Bush, Rovi

The Blueprint Play

When Jay-Z dropped "The City Is Mine" in 1997 and claimed New York's hip-hop throne upon the Notorious B.I.G.'s demise, many smirked and some even snickered. Four years later in 2001, when he released The Blueprint, no one was smirking and no one dared snicker. At this point in time, nobody in New York could match Jay-Z rhyme for rhyme and nobody in New York had fresher beats -- and many would argue that Jigga's reign was not just confined to New York but was, in fact, national. Yes, Jay-Z had risen to the top of the rap game in the late '90s and solidified his position with gigantic hits like "Big Pimpin" and "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)." Furthermore, The Blueprint's leadoff single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," dominated urban radio numerous weeks before the album hit the streets, generating so much demand that Def Jam had to push up the album's street date because it was being so heavily bootlegged. So when Jay-Z opens The Blueprint dropping rhymes about "runnin' this rap sh*t," it's not so much arrogance as it is a matter of fact. And by the time he brutally dismisses two of his most formidable opponents, Mobb Deep and Nas, less than ten minutes into the album, there's little doubt that Jay-Z's status as the top MC in the game is justified. But that's just one song. There are 12 other songs on The Blueprint -- and they're all stunning, to the point where the album seems almost flawless. Besides rhymes that challenge those on Reasonable Doubt as the most crafted of Jay-Z's career to date in terms of not only lyrics but also flow and delivery, The Blueprint also boasts some of his most extravagant beats, courtesy of impressive newcomers Kanye West and Just Blaze. Moreover, if the rhymes and beats alone don't make The Blueprint a career highlight for Jay-Z, the minimal guest appearances surely do. For once, listeners get exactly what they want: Jay-Z and nothing but Jay-Z, over beats so loaded with marvelously flipped samples the songs don't even need big vocal hooks. Besides, when you're already the top MC in the game, there's no need for crossover attempts. Uneven albums like Hard Knock Life were the crossover attempts, and now that Jay-Z is "runnin' this rap sh*t," a fully realized masterpiece like The Blueprint is the glorious result. ~ Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Kingdom Come Play

Jay-Z's retirement from making albums was more like a working holiday. After he announced his retirement, released The Black Album, and threw the Fade to Black party, he collaborated with Linkin Park on Collision Course, teamed with R. Kelly for the abysmal Unfinished Business, and appeared on tracks by Beanie Sigel, Bun B, Memphis Bleek, Kanye West, Pharrell, Lupe Fiasco, and Beyoncé. He kept busy behind the scenes as Def Jam's CEO and president, and he also stepped up as a major philanthropist, donating a million dollars to the Katrina cause and actively addressing the global water crisis in Turkey and South Africa. In the midst of these and other well-publicized activities, Jay-Z recorded Kingdom Come, his eighth and weakest studio album. When placed in the context of his prolific discography, the greater part of the album wilts, and it's not a good indicator that Jay-Z continues to lean on a familiar cast of producers rather than actively seek up-and-comers. (The fresh talent here is limited to Syience and Gwyneth Paltrow's Chris Martin; they contribute one track each.) There's only a small handful of highlights. On the title track, Just Blaze's masterful contortion job on Rick James' "Superfreak" backs Jay's nearly top-form, Black Album/Blueprint-worthy boasts: "I been up in the office, you might know him as Clark/Just when you thought the whole world fell apart/I take off the blazer, loosen up the tie/Step inside the booth, Superman is alive." Two of the four Dr. Dre productions feature assistance from Mark Batson (Anthony Hamilton), and they both strike a fine balance between maturity and ferocity -- much more so than the clumsy "30 Something," where Jay proclaims that "30 is the new 20," which would actually make him 27 and a fourth-grader a zygote. (He might as well say, "You wear Huggies, I wear Depends/You drink from a sippy cup/I sip my solids.") Apart from the above-mentioned bright spots and a poignant, somber track about the Katrina disaster ("Minority Report"), the album is a display of complacency and retreads -- a gratuitous, easily resistible victory lap -- that very slightly upgrades the relative worth of The Blueprint². ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Black Album Play

If The Black Album is Jay-Z's last, as he publicly stated it will be, it illustrates an artist going out in top form. For years Shawn Carter has been the best rapper and the most popular, a man who can strut the player lifestyle with one track and become the eloquent hip-hop everyman with the next, an artist for whom modesty is often a sin, and yet, one who still sounds sincere when he's discussing his humble origins or his recurring doubts. After the immediate classic The Blueprint found him at the peak of his powers, and The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse came as the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I, his follow-up (and possible siren song) impresses on the same level as the best of his career. As he has in the past, Jay-Z balances the boasting with extensive meditations on his life and his career. The back history begins with the first song, "December 4" (his birthday), on which Carter traces his life from birth day to present day, riding a mock fanfare and the heart-tugging strings of producer Just Blaze, along with frequent remembrances from his mother in This Is Your Life fashion. The other top track, "What More Can I Say," opens with Russell Crowe's defiant "Are you not entertained!?" speech from Gladiator, then finds Jay-Z capping his career with another proof that he's one of the best of all time, and a look into what made him that way: "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me." He also goes out with a few words for underground fans who think he's sold too many records for his own good. On "Moment of Clarity," he lays it out with an excellent rhyme: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since." The first single, "Change Clothes," is much more interesting than the lightweight club hit it sounds like, a keyboard-heavy pop sequel to the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (the anthem that rocked the summer of 2003, and his last collaboration with professional beat-maker and amateurish falsetto Pharrell Williams). And he can rock with the best as well, working with Rick Rubin on a cowbell-heavy stormer named "99 Problems" that samples Billy Squier and outrocks Kid Rock. The only issue that's puzzling about The Black Album is why one of the best rappers needs to say goodbye -- unless, of course, he's simply afraid of being taken for granted and wants listeners to imagine a rap world without him. ~ John Bush, Rovi

Chapter One: Greatest Hits Play

A greatest-hits compilation was inevitable, but possibly too soon. Taking things up to right before 1999's Life and Times of S. Carter, this compiles all of the earliest Jay-Z anthems onto one disc, quite possibly to ride off of the success of the Blueprint and Unplugged releases. These tracks are infectious and wildly pop-savvy hip-hop masterpieces that laid the groundwork for the R&B/hip-hop charts for the past decade, and they show Jay-Z in some of the finest moments of his career. It's a smart idea, but the album could have been much stronger had more recent material been included in place of remixes as bonus tracks. That said, fans unfamiliar with his classic early work should start here. Die-hard loyalists most likely have everything noteworthy already. ~ Rob Theakston, Rovi
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