Jay-Z’s Underrated Classics

Jay-Z rarely seems out of the press these days so we thought we would jump on Young Hov’s gravy train. Plus ‘Made in America’ is released on DVD and VoD next Monday, the 19th May. To celebrate this most celebrating of hip-hop stars we thought a look through Mr. Carter’s catalogue and give a quick mention to some of his forgotten gems, the underappreciated, the barely mentioned, the never performed. Let us know what you think deserves a mention, pa-pau!

Bring It On (featuring. Big Jaz and Sauce Money) – Reasonable Doubt

It’s beyond a doubt that Reasonable Doubt will stand as an all-time classic. Even Jigga himself still counts it as his best and his personal favourite. Eighteen years old and the album still holds up, ‘Ain’t No N***a’ sounds a little bit mid-90s cheese though. ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’, ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’, ‘Dead Presidents II’ all greats but one track always stands out for me is the DJ Premier produced ‘Bring It On’. Produced during Primo’s golden age of the late-80’s to mid-90’s when he was on a hot streak with Gang Starr, Jeru the Damaja and all round amazing beats. The mournful strings conjure up autumnally grey images of Bedstuay housing projects, slow moving cadillacs, basically it makes me think of Spike Lee’s ‘Clockers’. The song does sound as if it could have been produced in the same sessions of ‘Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers’ – one of the finest rap songs ever created. The lyrics are in keeping with albums overall Mafioso, street hustler themes. Money is power. Enemies will be crushed and all that. Nothing new but the lyrics and the grand beat imbue the song with a certain majestrial power. Big Jaz in particular stands out, a reminder of what could have been if he had, reportedly, handled his business affairs better.

Imaginary Player – In My Lifetime Vol. 1

Smooth, just like silk. Oh it’s smooth. Its video should just be Jay slung low in his car moving at 5mph. ‘In My Lifetime’ is not remembered overly fondly by some. Notorious B.I.G. was gone, it was Jay’s time to “take New York” and the best way to do this was apparently to get into bed with Puff Daddy and all that came with him – lyrics and production wise (remember when hip hop songs had twinkly bells in them?). A segue into a more populist sound yielded some good results. ‘The City is Mine’ has dated a bit, but my word that sexy sax sample. Others were god-awful… ‘I Know What Girls Like’. Imaginary Player then stands as a monolithic rock in an ocean of uncertain sounds. It harkens back to the sound of Reasonable Doubt and sounds like a progression of the sound. The lyrics continue the street hustle theme as Jigga looks down on the pretenders who claim to be genuine hustlers but haven’t put the hard graft in.  Oh and it’s smooth

A Week Ago (featuring. Too $hort) – Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life

Another tale of criminal shenanigans this time dealing with friends who have to go to war when one is arrested and turns snitch. The featured Too $hort lends some extra west-coast gangster clout and the song wouldn’t sound too out of place on a mid-90s Death Row album. Hard Knock Life was the album that catapulted Jay-Z into the popular conscience, it was a mammoth album but also all over the place. It felt less a coherent piece and more of a collection of singles – the revolving door level of producers and features help speak to this. With this his sound became increasingly polished and dulled down. A Week Ago stands tall as a fully realised 3 act story piece. It’s a nice reminder in an album full of ‘making money bravado’. The songs constant guitar sample and g-funk keys give the track a laid back quality befitting its west coast pretentions.

Soon You’ll Understand – The Dynasty Roc La Familia

The Dynasty was originally intended as a full blown Roc-A-Fella roster album. Then Jay was like ‘nah’ and decided to make it for-the-most-part solo affair. The overall sound saw him working with upcoming producers. Featuring first appearances from Kanye West and Just Blaze who would become very important in his career. The album sounds a bit muddled as all these new producers with different ideas throw different things in the pot. Like Hard Knock Life, The Dynasty felt more like a collection of track rather than an album proper. An odd stand out though is late track ‘Soon You’ll Understand’. Driven by an unnerving sample of that could either be shrill strings or haunting vocals from the theme to a film called The Landlord (which I would like to see), Young Hov is in story mode again. This time he is talking to the young sister of a friend who he has to leave because she can do better than him. It’s a surprisingly affecting song and does come across as genuinely heart-breaking.

Blueprint (Momma Loves Me) – The Blueprint

A theme here seems to be Jay is at his best when being introverted, dealing with his own life. It also shows that his more popular songs seem to be when he’s shouting about flossing major chips. A wonderful finisher to a great soulful album. After the messy Dynasty album The Blueprint felt like the first fully formed album since his debut. It’s right that it stands as a classic now. The Blueprint’s title track oozes soul as he lists all the people in his life who have affected change and made him the man he is today, especially his Momma who loves him. Aw. After an album built on tales of broken relationships (Song Cry), battle rapping (Takeover), grandstanding (Izzo (H.O.V.A.) and girls (Girls, Girls, Girls) it comes as a fitting coda and carries on the Jay’s streak of making great personal songs.

Beach Chair – Kingdom Come

‘Told Jay I did a song with Coldplay/Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay’, so Kanye West complained about on ‘Big Brother’. Choice between Jay’s ‘Beach Chair’ or Kanye’s boring-as-shit ‘Homecoming’ I know which one I would pick. Ominous strings, eye bleeding drums and Chris Martin’s vocals blend well complimenting the songs introverted dream-like quality. The song catches Mr. Carter in a contemplative mood. Looking back on his life, his successes, regrets, wondering why we’re here. The metaphor of life being like a beach chair is a bit hooky and doesn’t make a lick of sense but it sounds bombastic while it’s around. It was a good progression in Jay’s sound coming at the tail end of his disappointing post-retirement album ‘Kingdom Come’. I’m a confessed Coldplay sceptic but in this instance Chris Martin manages to pull off a better track than the majority of hip-hop super producers featured on the album like Dre and Timbaland. The songs not to everyone’s taste and seemed to split people right down the line between loving and loathing it. But sound wise it was a bold step in the right direction.

Real As It Gets (featuring. Young Jeezy) – Blueprint 3

From the much underrated Blueprint 3. Some thought it brought into too many of the synths dominating the indie scene at the time but B3 has some of the most ambitious music, helped in large part to Mr. West and Pharrell’s continued journey down the batshit crazy creative rabbit nest. Even Swizz Beatz seems to have become… good all of a sudden with songs like ‘On To the Next One’. It’s got a few clangers ‘Reminder’ for instance is atrocious, but ‘What We Talkin’ About’ is a great opener. Mid way into the album we hear Young Jeezy’s scratchy vocals (Young Jeezy presence happily carbon dates the album) on top of a beat that sounds like the sonic equivalent of a beautiful day at the beach. The song doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular apart from generally being awesome. This is very much a song about feeling and the song makes me feel fantastic. It’s grandiose, sweeping and just makes me want to be doing happy things. People like happy music don’t they? Sadly I’ve never heard it live.

BBC – Magna Carta Holy Grail

The one that has the obscene guest list. During the recording sessions a photo was released showing a grinning line of Jay, Nas, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. It’s possible that is was BBC they had been working on when the photo was taken. Its right they should be smiling because BBC is just a horrendously enjoyable ditty. Beyonce talks dirty. Swizz Beatz does his think now which seems to be just shouting “God dammit!” Timbaland and JT chant in unison. Nas sounds more alive than he has done in sometime and Pharrell’s beat seems joyously all over the place. There’s cow-bells, pianos, rhumba beats and even ominous synths. On paper it sounds like a complete mess and within the context of the album it does seem to come from nowhere. Despite intense, fly-by night promotion Magna Carta Holy Grail doesn’t seem like it will go down as one of Jay’s best. There are some treasure on the album ‘Oceans’ and ‘Picasso Baby’ for instance, given the cast list it’s strange that ‘BBC’ doesn’t get more mention. Perhaps people were disappointed with the results. One things for sure thought it will take a lot of planning to get authenticate live version performed. Oh and the songs about being rich!