Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Redeaming my Youth - 98-99 Hiphop appreciation (part 2 1/5)

Edit : Part 1 of part 2 up now.

Jay-Z – Volume 2 : Hardknock Life

What I thought then : This is awesome!...no wait this is commercial bullshit!

What I think now: This is awesome.

Analysis: Few albums have gone through as many flips of opinion in my mind as Jay-Z’s second Def Jam opus. In late 98 and early 99 I instantly fell under the spell of Jigga’s smooth criminal slanguistics and shuffling techno-funk beats only to reject all of that little over a year later when it became clear that one wouldn’t like both Wu-Tang and all that “R&B shit”. Really, talk about stupid. Luckily, time has fixed this flawed worldview and now I can bump this album constantly and relive those 14-15 year old moments. It’s still hated on by those who consider it his most commercial work though, so allow me to defend it.

Volume 2’s most striking feature is by far the production. If DMX’s keyboard beats sounded ghetto cheap, gothic and riot inducing, Jay’s sounded expensive as fuck, cashmere smooth and MTV ready. Swizz Beats, Timbaland and Irv Gotti all built their careers off the moments on this disk as they give it a syncopated space bounce that was previously inexistent in rap. Let’s face facts, this literally switched player chique from Puffy’s R&B loops to syntheiser bleeps n bloops and stuttering drums. Jigga meanwhile, absolutely MURDERS the production; effortless is a word that’s far too overused but Jay-Z literally flows like water, supremely confident in his abilities. From dismissing what was left of Ma$e’s credibility on the Stevie J helmed Ride or Die to bragging on Jermaine Dupri’s Money ain’t a thing, Sean Carter doesn’t say much but DAMN does he say it well. More hardcore minded rap aficionados may not have as much material to chew on, but the 45 King, Kid Capri, DJ Premier and Erick Sermon all serve up treats. The surprising thing is how Jay managed to find contributions almost as forward looking as his keyboard compadre’s contributions. In addition to revolutionizing production and proving that Jay-Z was the late Biggie Small’s equal at heavyweight party rap, Volume 2 made or broke the careers of maybe a dozen emcees. Those that managed to capitalize on their guest spots here (Ja Rule, DMX) were handsomely rewarded while those who didn’t (The Ranjaz, Amil, Jaz-O, Sauce Money) languished in obscurity. Even today, Reservoir Dogs contributors The Lox and Beanie Sigel are still the voices of the streets and although it means they haven’t really grown as artists, it also means Jay knew how to use them. It’s ironic that Beanie (and Memphis Bleek) didn’t find the immediate success that other producers and emcees featured here quickly jumped into: it took a few years before the Rocafella machine knew how to promote its own.

Those looking for smoky breaks and stairway lyricism will find little here. As far as party cds go however, Volume 2 is part of an exclusive club of releases that can still be played from beginning to end without sounding too dated. In a way, it was the Doggystyle of its era, a slickly produced CD showcasing a huge cast of gangsta contributors having fun in the studio. While Jay-Z would flip the formula completely a few years later on the heartfelt and critically acclaimed Blueprint, as far as what originally made Jay-Z Jay Hova¸ look no further.

Verdict: The best album of it’s kind.


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