Friday, October 17, 2008

Jay-Z "Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life"

Last week I reviewed Termanology’s new album saying that he was bringing back a sound missing from East Coast Hip Hop. This might be the album responsible for the loss of the traditional NYC aesthetic disappearing from the public ear.

Jay-Z is three albums deep in as many years, proving that his hustler mentality could be applied, and applied well, to the rap industry. This album represents the birth of Jay-Z the superstar.

I picked this album up along with Jay’s discography through one of those CD clubs (Don’t front, you know you were in one!) and listened to it for the first time while driving home along the Umpqua river - Oregon stand up! While not the greatest local to be listening to tales of the streets, I did… and I hated it.

But my hate for Vol. 2 wasn’t because I couldn’t relate to what Jigga had to say. It was because he was making his music for kids like me, and the pop feel that killed certain tracks on Vol. 1 turned into a pop album that, while still demonstrating credible lyrical skill, was filled with keyboard beats, annoying hooks and countless features from lesser emcees.

With these thoughts in mind I approached Vol. 2 this week to review with as open of ears as I could. But 10 years does a lot to a persons head and while I still think this will rank as my least favorite album from Shawn Carter I won’t ever be quite so quick to bash the “Hard Knock Life.”

It’s hard not to address said title track when it comes to anything regarding Jay-Z. He and the 45 King successfully took a sample from Annie (yes, the Broadway production) and turned it into the “Ghetto Anthem” and hit of the year propelling Vol. 2 to be Jay’s best selling record. Today I hear so much more in this track than I ever thought was present. 45 King hooks up a hard beat that, as Jay appropriately states at the beginning, screams to have the bass line studied! This makes up for the fact that the intro beat courtesy of Premier is wasted on Bleek.

Unfortunately this highlight is quickly stifled by the sounds of Swizz Beatz on the boards for “If I Should Die.” In recent years Swizz has been responsible for some of my favorite beats, and to his credit he had one filthy one in ’98 (Anyone remember the Anthem?) this right here is a demonstration in what not to do with a keyboard and with the featured Ranjahz it comes off pretty generic.

I guess things have to get worse before they can get better, and Vol. 2 continues down a path of mediocrity. Hitman Stevie J marks the only appearance of a Bad Boy affiliate, a stark contrast from Vol. 1, but doesn’t deliver anything memorable as “Ride or Die” goes along without ever really jumping out to catch you and what’s with this hook Jay, can you get any lazier?

Vol. 2 also marks the first meeting of Jay and Timbaland for “Nigga What, Nigga Who” (or “Jigga What, Jigga Who” for you MTV fans) and “Paper Chase,” another duet between Jay and Foxy. Amil makes her Roc status known on the former along with Jay’s mentor and future enemy Jaz-O. While neither track is terrible, the beats are incredibly boring and repetitive showing the leaps and bounds Timbaland has made when it comes to his tracks.

Swizz pops up again for “Money, Cash, Hoes” - another hit here from Jay and it features the other breakout star of ’98 in DMX, proving that he rolls with Swizz for a reason sounding far more energetic over Swizz array of synthesized sound effects. Luckily we are finally treated to a better display of skill from Mr. Beatz with the second Bleek feature on “Coming of Age (Da Sequel)” with the young gun playing his part next to the elder statesmen in Jay.

As the record hit’s its mid point we start to hear more of that grittiness we were familiar with from the debut but had slowly left Jay as he gained the fortune and fame. Too Short comes through for a great track in “A Week Ago” with Jay telling a tale of betrayal over a guitar loop and some sprinklings of piano. The only flaw is Short not rhyming? After the chemistry these two displayed last record, it’s a bad tease to put Short on the track solely for adlibs.

Irv Gotti shows up and shows why Murder Inc had the reign it did, with a great pop beat in “Can I Get A…” featuring the third of Def Jam’s late nineties power trio, Ja Rule. The classic “Reservoir Dogs,” one of the few posse cuts you can find Jay on, is some vintage NYness thanks to Sermon flipping “Shaft” like a producer of his status should. Lyrically the track is as hard as they come with the LOX proving that they didn’t belong under the shiney suit regime that was Bad Boy and we are introduced to a young kid out of Philly named Beans who might have the best verse here.

The album closes with the bonus cut “Money Ain’t a Thang” from Jermaine Dupri’s solo and while the song captures all that was wrong with Hip Hop towards the end of the decade I can’t help but turn it up and bang the shit out of it! Between a fun beat and great interplay between the two artists this track is that hot fire everyone wants to make, plus I remember spending a hundred with a small face.

Hip Hop was a commercial entity by this time and Jay-Z found his niche with this album, remember what he said on The Black Album:

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it yet they all yell "HOLLA!"
If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be
lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mill' - I ain't been rhymin like Common since

As much as I want to be bitter, his honesty here only proves the genuine skill those hidden album tracks on Vol. 2 demonstrate.

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