(Today's Reader Review is provided by frequent contributor Dag Diligent, who decided to tackle the only Jay-Z project I haven't yet written about (which is weird, since I found a way to talk about the Linkin Park mash-up and those two abysmal Jay-Z/R. Kelly collaborations, but whatever). Jay-Z Unplugged is a recording of his live MTV performance with The Roots as his backing band. Leave some notes for him below, and be sure to check out his website, The Tortoise General, when you're done.)
Jay-Z Unplugged, a project co-produced by Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Records and MTV, was a can't-miss concept: it was basically a greatest hits album by one of the finest emcees in the industry, set to live instrumentation provided by The Roots, long believed to be the finest actual band in hip hop. In this format, songs are chopped, extended, or rearranged to showcase their best elements while allowing for an authentic, spontaneous vibe which is undeniably absent from most hip hop albums. There are also no electric instruments or turntables on the stage. But let's be honest, folks: just because hip hop is a flexible-enough musical genre to be unplugged in the first place (especially when The Roots are involved) doesn’t mean that Jay-Z's established hit songs will translate well in this context, especially since most of the songs featured on Jay-Z Unplugged are commercial mega-hits.
I've always liked Jay-Z as an emcee, with one main caveat: I tend to prefer his album tracks over his radio hits. Regardless of what he spits over, though, he is always a solid emcee with unquestionable skills behind the mic. Jay-Z Unplugged was released well before Jigga's brief retirement and in the midst of his beefs with both Mobb Deep and Nas, so it isn't surprising that he manages to sneak in some references to both artists during his time on stage. Many people consider The Blueprint, which was released a few months before this project, to be the start of Jay’s best period of work, so many of the songs we think of as the man's biggest hits hadn't even been conceived at this point, which says a lot for the man's track record, like him or not.
I feel it is important to point out that MTV is behind the entire “Unplugged” concept (they have even recently recorded a live show with Lil' Wayne as their special guest – can someone please tell me how the fuck his schtick could ever possibly translate?), and they have a terrible track record with hip hop. I’m glad they were smart enough to bring in the brilliant Roots Crew (with vocalist Jaguar Wright in tow) as their ace in the hole, but let's see how things go anyway.
1. IZZO (H.O.V.A.)
Since singles from The Blueprint were burning up the radio when this show was recorded, Jay kicks off the session with three tracks from that particular album. No matter how well The Roots have adapted Jay's original beats, the live instrumentation is still jarring and lacks that slick production that we've come to expect from Jay-Z. That being said, the music sounds amazing, if a little flat. Jay sounds overwhelmed by the live instruments and clearly struggles with the whole “for shizzle my nizzle” hook, which is interesting to hear. This version comes off a little worse than the original, though, so I expect to spin neither one ever again.
A song I actually like. The music definitely lacks the raw power of the Kanye West-produced original, but Jay's battle rhymes are still devastating. I fucking loved that The Roots played classic Mobb Deep and Nas beats while Jay tore into them, especially when they segued into "N.Y. State of Mind". Take that, Nas! Very nice.
3. GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS
I hated the original version of this song, but this shit is good. The live music is immensely better than the album version, especially with Scratch beat-boxing throughout. I think Jay needed a little better voice production for these opening tracks, as his voice has been the weakest element on this album thus far. This and "Takeover" are as good as Jay-Z Unplugged gets, by the way.
4. JIGGA WHAT, JIGGA WHO
I genuinely hate the original version of this song (actually entitled “N---a What, N---a Who (Originator 99)”, from Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life). While I was intrigued by the treatment The Roots gave to Timbaland's original beat on here, the song was still painful to listen to.
5. BIG PIMPIN'
Another song that's tough for me to stomach, which I also don’t think translates well to the live format. Also, where are Bun B and Pimp C? Was MTV not willing to pay their airfare from Texas?
6. HEART OF THE CITY (AIN'T NO LOVE)
I think the Roots fumbled on this classic beat from The Blueprint: it sounds technically proficient, but it doesn't capture the life the original had. Unfortunately, this is the song where Jay decides to bring his “A” game and actually sound good. I wish everyone was on the same page on here: this track could have been great.
7. CAN I GET A...
The best part of this track is that it's short. Jay-Z is finally starting to come correct over the live instrumentation, but, let's be honest: this beat is garbage in any form.
8. HARD KNOCK LIFE (GHETTO ANTHEM)
This hook was never meant to be performed live. You’ve heard the song before, and believe me, the version you know sounds way better than this rubbish.
9. AIN'T NO
Another Jay-Z track that I hate. But I must say that the breakdown on here is fucking phenomenal, and it takes up a good portion of this track’s one minute run time. Another plus: Foxy Brown is nowhere to be seen.
10. CAN'T KNOCK THE HUSTLE / FAMILY AFFAIR (FEAT. MARY J. BLIGE)
Jay's debut, Reasonable Doubt, is represented for the second and final time with “Can't Knock the Hustle”. The music just doesn't sound quite right, and I really wasn't feeling it, even with Mary J. Blige, who guest-starred on the original song, sounding perfect. Halfway through, the music switches to a cover of the Dr. Dre-produced "Family Affair" from Mary's album No More Drama: it sounds okay, but nobody goes anywhere with it. It's almost as though the musicians threw it in there just to remind us that Mary J. Blige also has hit songs under her belt.
11. SONG CRY
I never really got into the original "Song Cry". This version was okay, but I would never replay it on purpose. It is odd to hear Jay big up his friend Dame Dash, though.
12. I JUST WANNA LOVE U (GIVE IT 2 ME) (FEAT. PHARRELL)
The best part of this track, originally from The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, is Scratch's vocal scratching. I was surprised how dead-on Pharrell sounds compared with his performance on the original: I always thought he produced the shit out of his voice. As someone who isn't a fan of the original song, I still kind of liked this version, as the energy level is through the roof.
13. JIGGA THAT N---A
Far be it from me to suggest to Roots drummer and general bandleader ?uestlove doesn't know how to make music, but I think the big finish for Jay-Z Unplugged should have been either a long smooth groove, or a knocker. This is neither. Needless to say, when you duplicate a shit song, you get even shittier shit.
After a brief delay, Jay-Z Unplugged ends with a hidden bonus track.
Although this is a solid cut, it doesn't really belong on Jay-Z Unplugged (having been recorded in a studio and all). Produced by former Roc-A-Fella staple Ski Beatz, it's a good track, but a bit too low-energy for it to be a Nas dis (which it kind of is). Jay lays down one of his typical high quality verses and closes out the album on a high note.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The unplugged format has some definite advantages: Jay-Z Unplugged is one cohesive project which allows Jay's personality to shine through a little in between songs. It also allows for a fresh take on his already-established material. But is there any reason to listen to these songs instead of the originals? I suppose if you absolutely love these tracks, any alternate version will be appreciated, but most of the songs on Jay-Z Unplugged were not my taste to begin with. To me, hearing The Roots perform live versions of Jay-Z's biggest beats was definitely the best part of the project, but it's a novelty that wears off. For the first half of the album, the music really shines and Jay struggles: he really should have warmed up first, because he comes out sounding weak. The back half features Jay finding his steam, but then the Roots arrangements start falling apart. There isn't any real middle ground on here.
BUY OR BURN?: I don't recommend a purchase here unless you're a Jay-Z fanatic. Otherwise, see if you can borrow it from your brother-in-law or a hip community college professor.
BEST TRACKS: "Takeover"; "Girls, Girls, Girls"; "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)"; "People Talking"
- Dag Diligent
(Questions? Comments? Complaints? Leave your thoughts below.)