New York rapper
Jay-Z (Shawn Carter)
was one of the most successful hip-hop acts of the 1990s.
His gangsta-rap album
Reasonable Doubt (1996), featuring state-of-the-art raps such as
Ain't No Nigga, Can't Knock the Hustle, Dead Presidents, Feelin' It, was not particularly original, but at least packed some passion and sounded sincere.
His subsequent albums were the exact opposite: superficial, artificial and
The conversion to mainstream pop-hop fusion began on
My Lifetime Vol 1 (1997), and its hits
Sunshine and The City Is Mine,
and continued on
Vol 2: Hard Knock Life (1998), with
Can I Get A, Hard Knock Life
Jigga What, It's Alright and Money Ain't a Thang,
star-studden Vol 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (1999),
Dynasty Roc la Familia (2000), with I Just Wanna Love U
and Change the Game.
Each of these was a monster selling album. Jay-Z's style was easy to digest
and basically invented living-room rap.
The Blueprint (2001), with Izzo, upped the ante a bit, but it
was the eclectic double album The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse (2002)
that established his credentials as a musician. Not a single track was
innovative, but all tracks were sophisticated enough in their respective
Jay Z Collison Course (2004) is a collaboration with Linkin Park.
Jay-Z announced his retirement after The Black Album (2004), containing
the pounding explosive 99 Problems, but
nobody believed him.
The Best Of Both Worlds (2002) and Unfinished Business (2005)
were collaborations with R. Kelly.
Despite the cast of guests (Dr Dre, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West),
Kingdom Come (2006) was another disappointment.
On the other hand,
American Gangster (2007), a post-modern concept album drenched in the
sound of the 1970s
(with floating snippets of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye),
restored Jay-Z's claim to the throne of gangster-rap
(Pray, Ignorant Shit).
The Blueprint 3 (2009) finally concluded the "Blueprint" series, with
Alicia Keys helping in Empire State of Mind,
Rihanna in Run This Town and
Timbaland penning Off That.
It was the 11th album by Jay-Z to top the sale charts, thus beating the record
held for decades by Elvis Presley.
Watch The Throne (2011) was a collaboration with
Kanye West, mostly an excuse to line up
world-famous stars and hire the world's most high-tech studios.
Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013) was, hopefully, just a joke
(including the single Holy Grail (2013), a collaboration with Justin Timberlake),
Kingdom Come (2006).
If you don’t care about Jay-Z’s personal life, there is no reason to listen to
4:44 (Universal, 2017), a confessional concept album (mostly spoken-word)
that feels like psychiatric therapy.
The music is limited to a few minutes, best probably
The Story of O.J. with the
counterpoint of a female vocalist who seems to sing a different song
and some soulful jazz piano.
The centerpieces would be the
two eight-minute melodramas, 4:44 and Smile.
But these, and other songs, only owe their appeal to the artful
direction of producer No I.D.. It's his work that provides the setting for
these songs. He plays Jay-Z's boring lyrics against a
soundtrack of black music that includes Stevie Wonder’s Love’s in Need of Love Today (Smile), Nina Simone’s Four Women (The Story of O.J.) and Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free as well as oldies from the Alan Parsons Project (Kill Jay-Z) and Quarteto 1111 (Marcy Me, 1970).
You just have to try really hard not to listen to the words.
Everything Is Love (2018) completed the trilogy of albums devoted to
Jay-Z's famous marriage with Beyonce
(after Beyonce's Lemonade and Jay-Z's 4:44).
This time they spend most of the time bragging about their wealth, which ends
up sounding like a self-caricature given the low artistic quality of their
All three albums of the trilogy are valuable more as rap's equivalent of
reality television shows than as music.
Few couples have produced such uninspired music for such a long time.
And, in the annals of show business, it is hard to find a similar couple of
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