Tag Archives: the Notorious B.I.G.

Jay-Z – Chapter One: the Greatest Hits

Jay-Z
Chapter One: the Greatest Hits
March 11, 2002
Northwestside RecordsBMGSME
080/100
Jay-Z - Chapter One. the Greatest Hits
1. Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) [Radio Edit] // 2. Wishing On a Star [D’Influence Mix Radio Edit] (feat. Gwen Dickey) // 3. Sunshine [Radio Edit] (feat. Babyface & Foxy Brown) // 4. The City Is Mine (feat. Blackstreet) // 5. Can’t Knock the Hustle [Radio Edit] (feat. Mary J. Blige) // 6. Ain’t No Nigga [Original Radio Edit] (feat. Foxy Brown) // 7. Imaginary Playa // 8. Money Ain’t a Thang (Jermaine Dupri feat. Jay-Z) // 9. Can I Get a… (feat. Amil & Ja Rule) // 10. Streets Is Watching // 11. Money, Cash, Hoes (feat. DMX) // 12. I Know What Girls Like [Fly Girly Dub] (feat. Lil’ Kim & Diddy) // 13. Feelin’ I(feat. Mecca) // 14. Dead Presidents II //
bonus tracks
15. Wishing On a Star [D’Influence Mix Full Version] (feat. Gwen Dickey) 16. Can’t Knock the Hustle [Fool’s Paradise Remix] (feat. Melissa Morgan) // 17. Ain’t No Nigga [Rae & Christian Mix] (feat. Foxy Brown) // 18. Brooklyn’s Finest (feat. the Notorious B.I.G.)

Jay-Z’s first greatest hits album came to be completely without his involvement and quite possibly completely without his knowledge of it happening. Chapter One: the Greatest Hits, released in early 2002 in order to ride the success of his album the Blueprint compiles all the hits from Jigga’s first three albums Reasonable DoubtIn My Lifetime vol. 1 and vol. 2 and it wasn’t even released on Roc-a-Fella records, the label all of these songs appeared on.
I’m sure Jay was dazed and confused when he found the cheque from Sony subsidiary Northwestside Records on his doormat, a label he probably had never even heard of in his lifetime. (On a side note: I wonder if Kanye at one point held this album in his hands when he was working on launching that ‘new person’ thing with Kim Kardashian last year.)
It turns out that Def Jam, Roc-a-Fella records’ parent label was distributed by Sony Music Entertainment from 1984 to 1998, and it is probably for this reason that Sony had the rights necessary for compiling and releasing a compilation such as this one. This also helps explain the otherwise curious omission of hit singles from Vol. 3, the last album released before the Blueprint. By 1999, the year Vol. 3 was released Def Jam, and Roc-a-Fella with it had already jumped ship to the Universal Music Group.

Chapter One: the Greatest Hits  is therefore nothing but a byproduct of music industry technicalities. But it nevertheless is a nice trip through Jay-Z’s early catalog from a purely commercial point of view. These are after all Jay’s most successful singles from the 1996-’98 period, although even disregarding the bonus-tracks some curious choices have been made (I Know What Girls Like and The City Is Mine made the cut but Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originators ’99) and It’s Alright were left off? Never mind quality control, the latter respective two were higher-charting songs than the former respective two, besides being better songs by anyone’s standards except P. Daddy’s.) Keeping in mind that this amount of hits is the yield of only two years is pretty impressive in and by itself.

It is also worth noting that a lot of songs, Sunshine and Can’t Knock the Hustle in particular, sound much  better in their shortened radio edits and surrounded by their fellow hit singles than they do in their full-length incarnations on the albums on which they originally appeared. This is most likely because their instrumentals are perfectly enjoyable in measured doses but will grate on the ears when allowed to run on far beyond the three minute mark. It also helps that Can’t Knock the Hustle appears to have gotten a make over for it’s single release that has seriously tightened up the vocal production.

Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem), the song that opens the album, is probably today still Jay’s biggest singular stroke of genius. Having the streets- and the pop-audiences eating from the palm of his hand in one go. It is with this song that he truly took over Biggie’s crown, speaking of which.. 
The City Is Mine
is still too polished for a proclamation of dominance over the rap-game with its rubbery Teddy Riley instrumental and its vocodered BlackStreet hook, but in retrospect the man was absolutely right in crowning himself king of New York. Looking back today it is simply a matter of fact.
Ain’t No Nigga and Sunshine are fun, fluffy ‘males vs. females’ cuts, and even Foxy Brown’s inclusion sounds logical and tolerable in these abreviated edits (Although it still remains questionable whether they were worth her having a career with solo albums and shit.)
Can I Get a… finds Jay abandoning Fox for another conventionally good-looking but not-very-talented female rapper Amil (I guess that Jay made as much money as he did because he’s a business man as much as he is an artist, and keeps in mind what appeal music video will have to whom, when selecting the line-up for the songs on his albums that are poised to be singles) and has the first appearance on a charting single by a certain Ja Rule. That’s a whole lot of poorly recieved careers launched in one song. May it be a consolation price that it is a good song largely in thanks to Irv Gotti’s lightly treading instrumental.
Money Ain’t a Thang, originally taken from Jermaine Dupri’s solo debut Life in 1472, but for this occasion redistilled from Vol. 2 on which it appeared as a bonus-track, is hands down Jay’s most balltastic song from the shiny suit era. It is also a song that other rappers haven’t stopped quoting and paraphrasing since it was released, even if few will have realised that its hook quotes from Jigga’s own Can’t Knock the Hustle.
Money Cash Hoes work despite Jay-Z, invited guest DMX and producer Swizz Beatz each doing a horrible job with their respective contributions. Somehow they all cancel each other out and leave nothing but an entertaining singalong song for the clubs.
Streets Is Watching is quintessential early Jay-Z, but it was never a single nevermind a hit. So its inclusion is curious but not unwelcome. It makes one wonder what Chapter One could’ve been if it were a compilation of rareties, pre-Reasonable Doubt singles and guest appearances, and songs that appeared on compilations such as Streets Is Watching. One could make a fantastic compilation out of I Can’t Get With That, Dead Presidents (I)In My Lifetime and Hawaiian Sophie and such. But Chapter One is a not that album, so I better stop daydreaming and get back to the review…
Imaginary Playa may very well be the exact point where where Jay-Z invented swag. It’s beat that suggest a sort of cold disaffection combined with Jay having hella fun exposing unnamed competing rappers as busters makes an underrated classic. Again: not a single. Guess we can conclude that this Greatest Hits concept is out of the window by now. It makes one wonder whether someone at Northwestside records actually knew and liked Jigga’s catalog because this is positively starting so sound like a perfectly decent, if limited, ‘best of’. (Perhaps the person compiling Chapter One disliked Memphis Bleek as much as I do and this was why It’s Alright failed to make the cut, even if it’s a pretty decent song.)
Feelin’ It and Dead Presidents II weren’t exactly big hits but they are amongst Jay’s best songs, and they are an effective introduction to Reasonable Doubt for the uninitiated, so their inclusion is warranted. It is puzzling however that the original Dead Presidents isn’t on here since that actually was a hit single, with a gold certification even. Guess nobody at Northwestside records wanted to make the call to EMI, Jay himself or whoever owns the right to that song (not Sony or Def Jam though, because it didn’t appear on the Def Jam/ Sony re-release of Reasonable Doubt), lest they risk legal action preventing this compilation from even coming out.

My favourite inclusion is Wishing On a Star [D-Influence Mix] because a) It makes the original, rather boring Trackmasters produced version (which was a UK-only bonus on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1) completely obsolete, and b) because it grants the fantastic UK acid jazz band D-Influence (calling them underrated would be the understatement of the century, even though they have four albums under their belt I’d call them undiscovered) a paycheck that was probably the biggest they’ve ever gotten. (For this reason I’ll even condone Northwestside records including it two version that are only different in that one of them is two minutes longer than the other.) This song is almost worth the price of admission alone. (Or.. you know a trip to Amazon.com or iTunes if you already own everything else. Make sure to get the long version labeled as a bonus track.)

The album closes with four bonus-tracks, the first one of which is the previously mentioned long version of Wishing On a Star. The following two are a pretty cool Irv Gotti remix of Can’t Knock the Hustle and a completely unneccesary remix of Ain’t No Nigga that removes the most fun part of the original: the “No-one-can-fuck-you-bet-ter”-chorus. These tracks neither add nor subtrackt much to the equation, which is fine and all since bonus tracks are usually there only to fill up the remaining room on the compact disc. Although it would’ve been nice if these two cuts were so polite to make room for Originators ’99 and It’s Alright. But you can’t have everything I suppose. The last one however is Jigga’s awesome collabo with the Notorious B.I.G., rightfully called Brooklyn’s Finest off Reasonable Doubt. Why wasn’t this included in the proper track listing one must ask because it is definitely one of the best things on here. Oh well, at least it’s here right?

Chapter One: the Greatest Hits is about as good a job as one could do compiling a single Jay-Z disc using only his first three albums as a source to pick songs from, trying to please everyone. And if that doesn’t sound like an ideal purchase consider this: With a combination of radio edits of hit singles, fan favourites and and even a couple of rareties thrown in, it is in fact pretty representative of what the man was doing during those early career establishing years. That’s breaking down the creation of a rap album into a scientific equation (or a ‘blueprint’ if you will): Radio and club-songs plus street songs in equal measure equals platinum record sales and charts hits. Interestingly by the time Vol. 3 dropped he had perfected the art (word to Max from hhid) and he had gotten sick of it before creating The Blueprint. So this is very much a constructive phase of Jay’s mainstream career, not that you tell that from the individual songs which all sound professionally made and pretty good with Jay-Z’s conversative flow and icy playboy persona fully formed (except I Know What Girls Like off course, which sounds like shit no matter what you release it on). And it is interesting that this album’s creators have been able to capture that process that has on occasion led him to some pretty suspect collaborators such as Babyface, Teddy Riley, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, P. Daddy and Ja Rule. It is telling that most of these people have little career left while Jay keeps the his coming to this day.
More importantly though: it makes for a mostly entertaining listen from start to finish, and if that’s not a good reason to pick this up I don’t know what is. Just watch out that you don’t get a whole lot of stuff you already have because it’s a rough economy, and considering the direction Jay’s career would go following these songs there is no need to make the man richer unless you absolutely have to.

Best tracks
Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)
Can’t Knock the Hustle [Radio Edit]
Imaginary Playa
Ain’t No Nigga [Original Radio Edit]
Money Ain’t a Thang
Can I Get a…
Streets Is Watching
Feelin’ It
Dead Presidents II
Wishing on a Star [D’Influence Mix Full Version]
Brooklyn’s Finest

Recommendations
If you’re unfamiliar with Jay-Z’s first three albums this is a pretty good place to start and you should pick this up.


R. Kelly – R. Kelly

R. Kelly
R. Kelly
November 14, 1995
Jive Records/ SME
080/100
R. Kelly - R. Kelly
1. The Sermon // 2. Hump Bounce // 3. Not Gonna Hold On // 4. You Remind Me of Something // 5. Step In My Room // 6. Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby // 7. (You To Be) Happy (feat. the Notorious B.I.G.) // 8. Down Low (Nobody Has to Know) (feat. Ronald Isley & Ernie Isley) // 9. I Can’t Sleep Baby (If I) // 10. Thank God It’s Friday // 11. Love Is on the Way // 12. Heaven If You Hear Me // 13. Religious Love // 14. Tempo Slow // 15. As I Look Into My Life // 16. Trade My Life

A prime example of an album that gives you most of the kicks you get from it because it’s sort of weird is R. Kelly’s self-titled third solo album.
It manages to blur the line between earnest make out album and golden comedy record, a concept that would which would henceforth be Robert Kelly’s bread and butter.

He has matured a bit since unleashing 12 Play onto the world, this album doesn’t have any of the pimp banality that album served up on tracks like Summer Bunnies and I Like the Crotch on You. Because his rapping in particular went hand in hand with the superficiality those songs conveyed, and hopefully because he realised that he sucked at rapping coming off as some sort of generic party rapper like MC Hammer whenever he did it, all he does here is what he does best, which is sing.
And the songs he sings build on the songs off his sophomore album that were succesful. Your Body’s Callin’Bump and Grind and  Sex Me were career establishing and consolodating hits with their insidiously percolating quiet storm slow grooves combined with R. Kelly’s excellent Reese’s peanut butter cups-tenor and risqué lyrics. Lyrics that may still are as explicit and carnal as they were on the last album, but no longer as misogynic and objectifying. No longer is R. Kelly the overenthusiastic poonhound. This time around Robert plays the roll of the earnest, mature lover who worships you and whose sole life purpose is to get you in the seventh heaven with his bumpin’  and grindin’, even if he doesn’t necessarily want to stay around keeping you company forlong after the act. R. Kelly is a much less giddy album than 12 Play, but the veneer of added maturity somehow only serves to augments the comedic effect some of these songs have on the listener, the comedic effect that nobody but Robert knows to be intentional or not.

Kells liberally borrowed from soul legends such as Donny Hathaway, Barry White, Lionel Richie, Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Charlie Wilson, Luther Vandross, Isaac Hayes and the Isley Brothers (who appear on this album) which makes sense since arguably he was the heir to the fictional R&B throne that had been passed around between these listed names. He infuses variations of their brands of soul with Dr. Dre’s G-funk sound, which was in and by itself a dervative of some of these artists and serves up the quintessential soul record of 1995.
More than from any of these guys however Kelly appears to draw inspiration from Marvin Gaye, which draws an unfair comparison, but one that needs to be made regardless to place this album in proper context: Crafty as Robert was and still is at making sex songs, in Marvin Gaye’s league he is most definitely not, although he out of all of his contemporary peers he’s come the closest.

But still R. Kelly hadn’t yet (and still hasn’t) got anything under his belt as effortless sexy and soulful as Let’s Get It On or Sexual Healing which he probably never will either, which you shouldn’t blame the guy for since nobody but Marvin does. This is what separates pop’s craftsmen from the artists. The stars from the legends. But that didn’t stop Robert from finding his own way to create memorable classics and developing his own signature style of salacious love song, a style that may not be as beyond reproach as Marvin’s is amongst critics, but depending on your point of view is equally, if not more entertaining.
And one of the lessons he has learned from the late great one is to not be afraid to use silly metaphores. Marvin had songs with lyrics such as I’m hot just like an oven, I need some lovin’ but employed these somewhat sparingly and suptly, while mr. Kelly goes for broke with them here as is evident in the hook to his classic slow jam You Remind Me of Something.

You remind me of my jeep, I wanna ride it
Something like my sound, I wanna pump it
Girl you look just like my cars, I wanna wax it
And something like my bank account
I wanna spend it, baby
R. Kelly – You Remind Me of Something

These would be what the fuck!? lyrics are salvaged by R. Kelly’s impressive ability to sing them straightfacedly and soulfully, and by the music, which is everything these words aren’t: restrained, sexy and, dare I say it; classy.
The ensuing recordings are electrified with the tension this paradox creates, and with music lovers there is still a debate whether or not this man can be fucking serious with these songs, which is exactly what makes this man so fascinating in the first place.
Well that is an important part of it, but it wouldn’t mean anything without the fact that he’s got the musical chops to make these songs sound good, and a voice that is simply a amazing instrument.
(Also there’s his well documented personal life and legal troubles that leave a lot of room for speculation and blur the lines between his art and his reality, in the public’s perception at least, and his unwillingness or inability to alter his artistic persona to something less abiguously guilty at everything the man has been charged with in real life.)

Besides the demographic that enjoys Robert’s creations either ironically or with a large portion of good old christian guilt (another central theme to the man’s music explored on tracks like the Sermon, Thank God It’s FridayAs I Look Into My Life and Religious Love along with more random instances of other religious imagery) there are women R&B fans that couldn’t give a rats ass about all that analytic bull, and oddly enough either take songs like You Remind Me of Something at face value as a legitimately romantic song to get nasty to without minding the lyrics much because “the beats are sexy” (this is not a complaint), or on the other end of the R. Kelly spectrum flat-out refuse to listen to the man because he has been charged with (and acquitted of) statutory rape, while still being completely comfortable with Chris Brown, who is 500% more despicable and not 1/10 as talented, because smacking your bitch up in a fit of rage doesn’t count as a sexual offence.

For all these different categories of fans (and haters who hate the man for the exact same reasons his fans love him) R. Kelly has something to offer. For those who wish to sing along to quirky sex songs there’s the previously mentioned You Remind Me of Something and a jam called Hump Bounce, as well as the classic tale of love cheating and betrayal called Down Low (Nobody Has to Know), which goes to show that Robert is as good a storyteller as Slick Rick and was a precursor to his infamous Trapped In the Closet series (Down Low (Nobody Has to Know) unfortunately has only two pars of which only the first is included on this album).

For the romantics amongst us looking for the soundtrack to a long makeout session there’s those exact same songs, as well as less questionable inclusions like Love is on the Way, I Cant Sleep Baby (If I)Not Gonna Hold OnStep In My Room and Trade My Life. If you want to have a dance (at a tempo low enough to prevent you from breaking a sweat) there’s the Biggie-featuring (You to Be) Happy and the understated Thank God It’s Friday.

Everything is held together by Robert’s on-record persona and his sultry, impeccable productions. For fans of contemporary R&B and soul music; You’re hard pressed to find an a similar abum of better quality. R. Kelly is a classic in its genre, and a quantumleap forward for R. Kelly, building from 12 Play‘s hit-or-miss qualities to something consistently entertaining.

Best tracks
Hump Bounce
Not Gonna Hold On
You Remind Me of Something
(You To Be) Be Happy
Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)
I Can’t Sleep Baby (If I)
Thank God It’s Friday
Love Is on the way

Recommendations
If you’re into vintage R&B pick this up. It should teleleport you to a place that is both the sexy dimension and the uncanny valley, and make you laugh out loud in random intervals in the process. And there aren’t to many albums that can legitimately claim to do that to people.


Irv Gotti Presents: The Remixes

Various Artists
Irv Gotti Presents: the Remixes
November 5, 2002
Murder Inc. Records/ Def Jam Recordings/ UMG
050/100
Irv Gotti Presents the Remixes

1. The Remixes [Skit] // 2. Unfoolish (Ashanti feat. the Notorious B.I.G.) // 3. I’m So Happy (Ashanti feat. Charlie Baltimore, D.O. Cannons & Young Merc) // 4. The Pledge [Remix] (Ashanti, Ja Rule, NaS & 2pac) // 5. O.G. [Remix] (Black Child & Caddilac Tah) // 6. Boss [Skit] // 7. Me & My Boyfriend (Toni Braxton feat. 2pac) // 8. Come-N-Go (Ashanti, Ja Rule, Caddilac Tah & 7Aurelius) // 9. Poverlous (Caddilac Tah)  // 10. Spanish Dancing [Skit] // 11. Rainy Dayz [Remix] (Mary J. Blige feat. Ja Rule) // 12. Moreno [Skit] // 13. Baby [Remix] (Ashanti feat. Scarface) // 14. Hard Livin’ (D.O. Cannons & Young Merc) // 15. No One Does It Better (Black Child, Caddilac Tah & Ja Rule) // 16. Remo’s Back [Skit] // 17. We Dem Boyz (Let’s Ride) (Chink Santana, D.O. Cannons & Young Merc) // 18. Baby [Remix] (Ashanti feat. Crooked I)

Remixes of tried and true hits and some added bonuses in the form of new tracks by Caddilac Tah and Black Child and some new cats (groan). 2pac involentarily pops up on two tracks, one of which, a Toni Braxton song, at least techically actually could have happened back in the ’90s because both Toni and Pac were around, and which started a beef between Braxton and Jay-Z who sampled the same pac song for his ’03 Bonnie & Clyde.

Scarface his vocals, featured first on a song called Mary Jane are reused for a remix of Ashanti’s Baby because the original already had stolen its beat already anyway. Then at the tail end of this dated novelty project a horribly miscast Crooked I re-does the re-mix in order to appear in full Ja Rule-capacity in its video, complete with mink coat. (I’m sure he doesn’t like it Joe, Joell and Royce bring that shit up.)

But hey some of the Ashanti tracks aren’t horrible, except for Unfoolish, which although it doesn’t sound bad, we had heard already on her own album, and which graverobs Biggie and morbidly puts him on the same album as 2pac, they’re all welcome additions to het catalogue. I’m So Happy more or less swipes the beat from the Gap Band’s Outstanding, which the original titled Happy did in a much more subtle manner, and The Pledge [Remix] replaces Caddilac Tah with NaS (no complaints there besides the 2pac thing.)

Besides Irv ruining Jeffrey’s Mary J. Blige duet Rainiy Dayz nobody does anything else worth mentioning so I’mma call it a day.

Best tracks
I’m So Happy, The Pledge [Remix], Baby [Remix] (Crooked I version)

Recommendations
What do you think?


Ashanti – Ashanti

Ashanti
Ashanti
April 2, 2002
Murder Inc. Records/ Def Jam Recordings/ UMG
060/100
Ashanti - Ashanti
1. Intro // 2. Foolish // 3. Happy // 4. Leavin (Always on Time [Part II]) (feat. Ja Rule) // 5. Narrative Call [Skit] // 6. Call // 7. Scared (feat. Irv Gotti) // 8. Rescue // 9. Baby // 10. Voodoo // 11. Movies // 12. Fight (Over) [Skit] // 13. Over // 14. Unfoolish (feat. the Notorious B.I.G.) // 15. Shi Shi [Skit] // 16. Dreams // 17. Thank You

When listening to the snippets of hit singles Ashanti was featured on prior to recording this album, on the intro, one gets the impression that Ashanti’s number-one asset, besides looking gorgeous, is her ability to peacefully co-exist with nearly any rapper on a track. Even though she always sings in key and, more impressively, never engages in Stevie Wonder-esque melisma, like Beyoncé does always, she also never was the standout thing about the song she was featured on. That’s not to say she doesn’t bring anything to the table, far from it. Classic rapped/sung collaborations such as Always on Time and What’s Luv? wouldn’t have clicked remotely as well as they did without our hostess’ presence. It’s just that she was always there in a anonymous studio singer #9205 capacity, rather than as the next big R&B diva.

Yet and still Ashanti was the beginning of a several multi-platinum album career, not by having her trying to be Beyoncé, but by using her strengths. Ashanti walks through her debut album at a steady pace without so much as breaking a sweat, showing the world that if nothing else she’s at least an unrivaled mistress of lithe. With Irv Gotti and his second-in-comands 7Aurelius and Chink Santana breaking out soul sampling productions covered in a thin layer of shimmer powder, which is blown into the athmoshere via swooshing wind-effects.

Everything is tastefully done. With the absence of useless oversinging goes a absence of useless drama. When here relationship is good Ashanti isn’t Crazy In Love, but rather she is Happy. When she’s lamenting her inability to get out of a sour relationship with clarity on Foolish you have the feeling she’s going to be alright. You are proven correct on the Biggie mash-up sequel Unfoolish, twelve tracks later. She also does sensual better than many a contemporary, on tracks such as VoodooMovies and Baby, simply by putting her sexual confidence casually rather than making some sort of pseudo-bold statement out of it.

Finding highlights or low points on here is hard. A high point could be Unfoolish because it makes rather clever use of two Notorious B.I.G. verses plus ab-libs previously heard on his own Fuck You Tonight. The deal is, Debarge’s A Dream, which is sampled extensively on both Foolish and Unfoolish is also used B.I.G.’s own 1994 single One More Chance [Remix]. So what you have here is vocals and instrumentals of two B.I.G. songs mashed-up with Ashanti thrown in for good measure.

A low point is when Ashanti and Ja decide to reprise Always on Time but fail to come up with something catchy, and Jeffrey’s raspy voice nearly disrupts the impeccable, rippling flow of the album, which is otherwise nearly flawless. It really says it all that if Ashanti and these producers do their thing for an entire album without missing a step, and that only guest artists can influence the quality, either positively or negatively.

Best tracks
Foolish, Unfoolish, Happy, Baby

Recommendations
If you’re looking for sparkly, slight, cute pop-R&B that evaporates from the human conscience immediately and completely when you turn it off, Ashanti is your way to go. She certainly doesn’t suck, nor does she demand a purchase. I recommend a buy, but with the lowest priority.


Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt

Jay-Z
Reasonable Doubt
June 25, 1996
Roc-A-Fella Records/ Priority Records/ EMI
085/100

1. Can’t Knock The Hustle (feat. Mary J.Blige) // 2. Politics As Usual // 3. Brooklyn’s Finest (feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & DJ Clark Kent) // 4. Dead Presidents II // 5. Feelin’ It (feat. Mecca) // 6. D’Evils // 7. 22 Two’s // 8. Can I Live // 9. Ain’t No Nigga (feat. Foxy Brown) // 10. Friend or Foe // 11. Coming of Age (feat. Memphis Bleek) // 12. Cashmere Thoughts // 13. Bring It On (feat. Sauce Money & Big Jaz) // 14. Regrets

Whenever the pointless debate about who is the best rapper ever rears it head, and the discusion doesn’t end in a face-off between two dead guys; Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is oft brought up. From what music he produces these days the average hardcore hiphop head wouldn’t draw the conclusion that he is one of the best ever. Obviously he and his collaborators are, even today, way above average in creating bearable radio music, but that doesn’t get you the props the Jiggaman recieves on a daily basis from the people who love rap. Unlike what is the case with Lil’ Wayne there are quite a few people other than the man himself who think that he is the best to ever have tried his hand talking over beats in a rhythmnic manner. Therefore the reasons for his widespread acclaim lie, for the better part, in his past.

In 1996 to be exact. After having spent years under the wing of his mentor Jaz-O a.k.a. Big Jaz, and appearing on songs by artists such as Big L and Big Daddy Kane Jay still didn’t have a record deal. Hence he and two of his friends; Dame Dash and Kareem Biggs, started their own record label Roc-a-Fella records, named after J.D. Rockefeller, because that guy was filthy fucking rich during his lifetime, which was one of Shawn’s goals. (Although, if you are prone to buy gangster rap shtick then you believe mr. Carter to have been loaded with cash already when this album came out because of cocaine trafficing career.) Now he had a label he proceeded to record Reasonable Doubt. After it’s release it became clear why Jay never got a record deal before, as the Major labels were ostensibly right about the marketability of what he was doing at the time. The album never hit higher than #23 on the billboard top 100 and while this in and by itself was not bad for a rap album at the time, it is telling that it took until 2002 (that’s six years) for the album to go platinum. So the crouds initially did not go apeshit over it, causing our host to panick over the profitability of his career and have his sophomore album In My Lifetime, vol. 1 to be overseen by rap’s at the time midas touch producer, P. Daddy, resulting in a couple of really embarassing singles.

But back to the matter at hand, the critics did thoroughly enjoy Reasonable Doubt, applauding the combination of Shawn’s mafioso raps (which were in part modeled after what Raekwon had done on his ‘94 solo debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…) and the characteristically East Coast production by such respected veterans as DJ Premier (Gang Starr, NaS, the Notorious B.I.G.) , Ski (Camp Lo) and Super DJ Clark Kent (Dana Dane, the Notorious B.I.G., Slick Rick, Rakim). Critics like it so much that the album is still seen as one of the finest efforts the hiphop genre has produced since it came to exist in the late ‘70s.

Listening to it today one must conclude that this album has its faults. Some of the songs, such as the album’s biggest single Can’t Knock the Hustle, are plain boring. Some of the guests (Memphis Bleek and Foxy Brown to be exact) deliver dreadfully mediocre performances on otherwise good songs, giving the listener the idea that the only concievable logical reason for their inclusion is to make our host sound even better by comparison. (This would in and by itself explain perfectly why Jay left Sauce Money in a ditch somewhere in the late ‘90s, but kept Memphis Bleek around for guest performances, until he left his entire Roc-a-Fella boutique label to rot, in order to start his new boutique label; Roc Nation, in 2008) And some of the instrumentals are dated in a manner that inspires meh. (actually only the last track Regrets, fits that bill)

With that said, it comes as close to perfection as any other textbook classic rap album. (Reasonable Doubt is most definitely on par with the likes Ready To Die, the Chronic or Straight Out Of Compton. The only comparable album that I can think of, that is significantly better is NaS’ Illmatic, because it has only one questionable inclusion, compared to this album’s four. And you could even rightfully argue that, because Reasonable Doubt is four tracks longer than Illmatic they contain the same amount of classic material.)  because all the other songs on here are fucking bonkers.  After the lengthy, pseudo-ambient yawn inducer-slash-album opener that is Can’t Knock the Hustle the album picks up steam with, what should have been the the first song, Politics as Usual. Over a Ski instrumental that is pleasant enough to keep ones attention, but remains sufficiently in the background so that the spotlight is on Jay’s performance, the man puts his conversational flow to use and tells the listener about his experiences in the streets selling drugs and what not. Whether or not he really lived this life is not up for debate here and is irrelevant. His tone, which one might use on an old friend one hasn’t seen in a long time, updating him about current events, makes it sound credible enough. It also helps that he rhymes his ass off here, providing punchlines for days. Following that treat comes Brooklyn’s Finest, a twilight of rap gods where Jay holds his own against the Notorious B.I.G., whom is considered by many, including yours truly, the best rapper ever. Again, these MC ranking lists are bullshit, but this collabo leads to a very specific comparison that simply demands your respect for Lil’ Jaz. He stands toe to toe with the then current king of New York. Therefor, at the very least, the man makes a case for that he was next in line for succession. And this lyrical sparring match leads results in a flawless duet. Other people who provide some impressive rhyming are Sauce Money and Big Jaz on the DJ Premier-produced Bring It On. In turn, them holding their own against Jay-Z,  gives an unfulfilled promise of brilliantly succesful careers of their own to come. Alas, Jay had more faith in Bleek. Or they simply weren’t prepared to shut up and hold Shawn’s pot for him, like Bleek was.

Another highlight is Feelin’ It, which is a mellow ass weed-inspired song-slash-boastfest that has a piano based DJ Ski instrumental that is just perfect to zone-out to when you’ve smoked a bowl and some awe-inspiring raps in the conversational style that earned Shawn a fanbase. Whether he’s boasting, threatning or introspective; he makes it seem as if he’s talking to you specifically. That is his most distinctive feature, both as a rapper and as a lyricist.

What y’all ain’t heard that nigga Jay high?
The Cristals they keep me wet like Baywatch
I keep it tight for all the nights my mom prayed I’d stop
Said she had dreams a sniper hit me with a fatal shot
Those nightmares ma
Those dreams you say you got give me the chills
But these mills make me hot y’all don’t feel me
Enough to stop the illin right?
But at the same time these dimes keep me feelin tight
I’m so confused
OK I’m gettin weeded now I know I’m contradicting myself
Look I don’t need that now

There’s so much highlight here that it is impossible to give them each the attention they deserve. The very best and most vivid of them all might be the DJ Premier produced Friend or Foe, which clocks under a minute and a half. Some of these songs just make one wish that Jiggaman wouldn’t have diluted his style on his follow-up to find platinum sales with Puff Daddy, Timbaland and the Neptunes. Off course nobody would’ve benifited from a stack of nearly identical albums, and club bangers have their place and time. Some of the work Jay has done later on with the likes of Pharrell is top notch, and no one can rightfully claim that Shawn cannot put together a good radio song. But the fact that the fantastic, ominous, Ski-produced Dead Presidents was this album’s first single and failed to make much of an impact on the charts, forcing mr. Carter to change his direction, makes a hiphop head dream of an alternate universe where the mainstream would’ve been down with more edgy stuff and facilitated the creation of more of it.

I’d rather die enormous than live dormant that’s how we on it
Live at the main event, I bet a trip to Maui on it
Presidential suites my resedential for the weekend
Confidentially speakin in codes since I sense you peekin
The NSX rental, don’t be fooled my game is mental
We both out of town dog, what you tryin to get into?
Viva, Las Vegas, see ya, later at the crap tables
meet me by the one that starts a G up
This way no fraud Willie’s present gam-b-ling they re-up
And we can have a pleasant time, sippin margaritas
Ge-ge-geyeahhh, can I live?
Can I live?

This verse, taken from the brilliant Irv Gotti produced Can I Live shows off an ambition that perfectly explains the artistic direction he would take after Reasonable Doubt made him a hood champion, but not the superstar he fancied himself being. And no-one can blame him for following and producing a lot of music that was and a lot better than what his peers brought to the table and still bring to the table today. Even if it did take the edge off a bit.

However, before the big hits, the major label presidency, the booty-bumping with Beyoncé and the constant recycling of the Notorious B.I.G.’s lines in “tribute” there was Reasonable Doubt, an album that after its first and worst track is finished playing, likes to pretend the radio didn’t exist and that presented the listener with something that is an interesting, entertaining piece of fiction backed by some well put-together music.

Best tracks:
Politics As Usual, Brooklyn’s Finest, Dead Presidents II, Feelin’ It, Can I Live, Friend or Foe, Bring It On

Recommendation:
Buy this album.