4.11.2008

THE REALESTS' GUIDE TO JAY-Z

A few months ago, The Onion AV Club put out an article that purported to be a Primer for people that wanted to get into Jay-Z's music. It was crap. Absolute and utter crap. It seemed to lack any real effort or research. And, frankly, it seemed that the person writing the article hadn't even listened to the entire Jay-Z discography. And if they did, they didn't listen to it with any care or attention. This made me ask them, "Do you listen to music or do you just skim through it?" They answered, "We just skim through it." The Realests don't. For us, Jay-Z's music has been a soundtrack to our lives. As a side note, that also made writing this post extremely difficult. I felt that by devaluing certain albums I was devaluing certain parts of my life. Wow, that sounds awful. But I'm not deleting it.

The subject matter of this post has always been the Holy Grail of blogging for me. It's my Moby Dick, my Mt. Everest. I've put so much thought and time into listening to Jay-Z over the last 10 years that it's become almost impossible for me to think that I could put together a coherent post where I actually rank the albums in any sort of meaningful way. This will be my valiant attempt.

On an initial level, I've tried to place each song from Jay-Z's albums into one of five categories: Classics, Bangers, Mediocre, Clunkers, and Abominations. There's a lot of gray area but I did my best. I was going to get my John Hollinger on and create a complex formula to calculate the Album Efficiency Rating (AER) but my abacus broke and I lack the mental math skills of people like The Dude and Sameer. So, we just have the categories.

But the categories don't tell the whole story. An album, just like any other thing, is more than the sum of its parts. The song categorizations are obviously subjective, but just because one album has a higher percentage of classics than other doesn't necessarily mean that it's better than others for me. There's a certain feeling linked to each album and that's mine and you assholes can't take it away from me. So, forgive me if you don't understand exactly why I made the decisions I made, but I'll do my best to explain my thoughts.

REASONABLE DOUBT

Classics: Can't Knock The Hustle, Politics As Usual, Brooklyn's Finest, Dead Presidents II (New Lyrics), D'Evils, 22 Two's, Cashmere Thoughts

Bangers: Ain't No *****, Friend or Foe, Feelin' It

Mediocre: Can I Live, Regrets

Clunkers: Coming Of Age, Bring It On

Abominations: None

The only Jay-Z album which I listened to a significant period of time after it came out. The Jay-Z that I initially started listening to didn't have the rapid fire flow that he has on Reasonable Doubt. Reasonable Doubt's Jay-Z has by far the best wordplay and lyricism of any album that he put out. I do think that it lacks in the beats a little bit - it's more of a mellow album. The mellowness of the album isn't odd though, considering the fact that the album is essentially about Jay enjoying being at the top of the crime world. Jay didn't want to portray the struggle really, he wanted to portray the lifestyle you get after getting to the top and a few of the regrets you have once you're up there. "Brooklyn's Finest" is probably my favorite song on here just because the whole damn thing was freestyled and neither Jay or Big wanted to write the chorus, so they just basically left the studio and had the producer come up with the hook. There's not much more I can say about this album - it's considered a classic by almost everyone and I certainly do enjoy it a lot, but unfortunately it's a little before my time. I wasn't up on it when it came out so it will always feel a little off for me. I feel like an impostor when I talk about this album.

VOLUME 1 - IN MY LIFETIME

Classics: Where I'm From, Who You Wit

Bangers: Streets Is Watching, Friend or Foe '98

Mediocre: Sunshine, Face Off, Rap Game / Crack Game

Clunkers: Imaginary Players, Lucky Me, You Must Love Me

Abominations: I Know What Girls Like, The City Is Mine

There's a fair share of crap on this CD but "Where I'm From" makes up for almost all of it. That song goes hard. So hard that I listened to it last weekend while strolling through Marcy with $100 bills taped to my face and no one tried anything. Other than that song, the CD is wholly unremarkable. This CD would start the trend of Jay-Z filling a large chunk of his CDs with subpar songs that I convinced myself I liked. "I Know What Girls Like" proves (kinda) that Jay and Diddy know what girls like, but at the same time, the song has no clue what my ears like. It's painful. And the "City is Mine" is similarly pathetic (although BlackSTREET's video where they had puppets playing the piano was sweet, right? No diggity!). The hidden gem on this album? The video for "Sunshine." If you have a mortal enemy with epilepsy, strap them into a chair and make them watch this video. They will have seizures and might die.

VOLUME 2 - HARD KNOCK LIFE

Classics: Hard Knock Life, N***a What N***a Who, Money Cash Hoes, Can I Get A....

Bangers: It's Like That, Money Ain't A Thing

Mediocre: A Week Ago, Coming of Age, It's Alright

Clunkers: None

Abominations: Intro - Hand It Down, If I Should Die, Ride or Die, Paper Chase, Reservoir Dogs

As I said in an earlier post, this CD is at the heart of rap's best period for me. I distinctly remember the day I bought this CD. I was extra amped when I found out that there was a bonus disc. I felt the exact opposite when I listened to the bonus disc. The classics on this album are the type of songs that you could play anywhere at any time people would start bobbing their heads (or barking and growling if "Money Cash Hoes" comes on). "Hard Knock Life" introduced the idea of having little kids sing rap choruses, it took me months to learn the words to "N***a What," and "Money Ain't a Thing" taught us to not slack on our mack or slip on our pimp(in'). "Can I Get A..." was inescapable when it was on the airwaves - every station was playing it every hour. This CD was when Jay-Z became JAY-Z. And it also began the trend of him referring to himself as Hova.

VOLUME 3 - LIFE AND TIMES OF S. CARTER

Classics: Big Pimpin

Bangers: Snoopy Track, Do It Again, So Ghetto, Watch Me

Mediocre: Dope Man, Hova Song (Intro and Outro)

Clunkers: Things That You Do, It's Hot

Abominations: S. Carter, Pop 4 Roc, There's Been A Murder, Come and Get Me, NYMP

Another underrated album. Everyone and their mother loved "Big Pimpin'". It introduced the Dame Dash dance to the world and made it acceptable (?) to pour full bottles of liquor and champagne onto women. I was a little upset with this CD though because it boasted guest appearances from Juvenile and Dr. Dre but they are both reduced to singing choruses on their respective songs. Either way, Juvenile is totally on point on "Snoopy Track" and it's one of the more hypnotic Timbaland beats. "Watch Me" is similarly excellent. "Dope Man" gets points just because it includes Serena Altschul on it (remember when she was really hot?). Between this CD and Volume 2 we also saw the birth of Timbaland as a monster producer - "Big Pimpin", "Snoopy Track", and "N***a What" are all classic Timbo productions. The bad songs on this CD are awful and, frankly, I have no desire to talk about them.


THE DYNASTY ROC LA FAMILIA

Classics: This Can't Be Life, 1-900-Hustler, I Just Wanna Love You

Bangers: Where Have You Been, Squeeze 1st

Mediocre: Intro, Change the Game, You Me Him and Her

Clunkers: Streets Is Talking, Get Your Mind Right Mami, Stick 2 The Script

Abominations: Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Parkin' Lot Pimpin, Holla, Soon You'll Understand, The ROC

My secret/not-so-secret album of all time. The songs are ridiculous. The rapping isn't that good. The guest appearances (mostly limited to Bleek, Amil, and Beans) are pretty poor. But everything works perfectly. Kind of like this blog. I am 100% convinced that had it not been for this CD, The Realests would have never been formed and would still probably have beef. If you don't own this album, shame on you. I can't really explain to you how the great songs on this CD are both unequivocally good and bad and how the awful songs on this CD are both unequivocally bad and good. With this CD, Jay did the seemingly impossible - he made a great rap album consisting of mostly awful songs. Part of this might be due to the fact that this CD had the Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Kanye all competing for the production credits. The one song that really stands out is "This Can't Be Life." A Kanye West song, it's one of the strongest Jay-Z songs to date. Beans and Scarface are excellent and it was a fitting prelude to the song "Guess Who's Back" on Scarface's CD. I'm convinced that a whole album with songs produced by Kanye and featuring these three rappers would easily be one of the best rap records of all time.


THE BLUEPRINT

Classics: Takeover, Izzo, U Don't Know, Heart of the City

Bangers: Renegade, Song Cry

Mediocre: The Ruler's Back, Girls Girls Girls, Jigga That N***a, Never Change

Clunkers: Hola Hovito, Blueprint, All I Need

Abominations: None

You're either a Blueprint guy or a Reasonable Doubt guy. That's what the Jay-Z debate ultimately comes down to. Me? I'd go with Blueprint because I like the production better. "Izzo" was an absolute monster when it came out and Jay decided to spend $3 on its video (seriously, it's bad). "Takeover" is, for my money, the best rap battle song ever made (with easily the best last 2 lines EVER). Special spot in my heart for the song "U Don't Know" because I would blast it in my car when driving around D.C. during the summer I lived there. Interestingly enough, for how good this CD is I'm shocked to realize how little I really listen to it. Maybe I burned it out during college, but going back and hearing it again is a real treat. The only bad thing about the Blueprint is that it gave Jay-Z the idea for Blueprint 2.

BLUEPRINT 2: THE GIFT AND THE CURSE

Classics: None

Bangers: The Watcher 2, The Bounce, Diamonds Is Forever, U Don't Know (Remix), Meet The Parents, Blueprint 2

Mediocre: Hovi Baby, 03 Bonnie and Clyde, Excuse Me Miss, Poppin Tags, Some How Some Way

Clunkers: Guns and Roses

Abominations: A Dream, What They Gonna Do, All Around The World, F**ck All Night, N**** Please, 2 Many Hoes, As One, Some People Hate, I Did It My Way

This was a total crap sandwich. Jay tried to say in interviews that his flow was unmatched on this CD. Well, he might think that but the lyrics and the beats and the overall bloated feeling of this CD are just abysmal. "Watcher 2" is a hidden gem with Jay, Dre, and Rakim all putting down good verses (and Jay's flow is magnificent here too). "The Bounce" is great because it capitalized on the Indian trend. "U Don't Know Remix" is fantastic because it allowed me to tell people that I would eat their face for about 2 years when we were playing video games. And "Blueprint 2" is fantastic because Jay-Z asks Guru to "unleash the flutes"....but there are no flutes on the whole damn song. Plus, he goes at Nas hard on that song. As for the bad songs on here? It's almost too painful to go through. This album was the ultimate in excess. Jay even looked stupid on the album cover.

THE BLACK ALBUM

Classics: PSA, Encore, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, 99 Problems

Bangers: What More Can I Say, Threat, Allure, Lucifer, My 1st Song

Mediocre: Change Clothes, December 4th

Clunkers: None

Abominations: Justify My Thug

Like all albums this was supposed to drop on a Tuesday but because it leaked Def Jam decided to push it up a few days early and release it on a Friday. I still remember Jim screaming out "BLACK FRIDAY!!!" over the phone when he bought the CD. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" started the universal shoulder brushing maneuver that countless idiots (read: us) would use in pictures over the next 2 years. "PSA/Interlude" is top 5 Jay. "99 Problems" had a sick video (banned from MTV!) and allowed Jay-Z to talk about the illegality of warrantless searches and seizures. "My 1st Song" would be much better if it didn't have the excessive outro. Jay-Z line in "Threat" about his enemy's head being a parking garage and him parking bullets in the upper level might be my favorite rap line ever. I've also never really listened to "Justify My Thug" because it is so god awful - but I did read that Madonna was supposed to sing the hook. That counts for something right?? Also, is it bad that I might like the Linkin Park version of Encore better than the Kanye one? I also still laugh every time Jay-Z's mother says, "Isn't that special?" on "December 4th." Totally out of place.

KINGDOM COME

Classics: None

Bangers: The Prelude, Oh My God, Kingdom Come, Lost One, 44 4's

Mediocre: Show Me What You Got, Do You Wanna Ride, Trouble, Dig A Hole, Minority Report

Clunkers: Beach Chair

Abominations: 30 Something, I Made It, Anything, Hollywood

I was so excited for this album. After listening to it, I was so disappointed. It was such a lame comeback attempt. I do like the stilted flow on "Prelude" and the beat on "Oh My God." "44 4's" was simply a great concept so I was excited to hear that. But everything else just comes off as too defiant. I guess at the time he was feeling insecure about Jim Jones, artists taking shots at him because he wasn't the best at running Def Jam, and being old. Jay has always been best when the songs have been effortless - when he's talking about how easy shit is for him and how hard it must be for everyone else. And that is totally lacking on this CD. I didn't much care about the total media blitz that came along with this CD - for someone of his stature, its to be expected - but unfortunately the music didn't live up to the hype. This was also Jay's first album to be released in a really digital age and I think it shows. The Black Album went multiplatinum and I think it was more cohesive and less self-aware. The problem with Kingdom Come was that it was entirely too aware. Between his celebrity and his constant beefs, the awareness weighed down the CD. And that was a monster problem.


AMERICAN GANGSTER

Classics: Roc Boys

Bangers: Hello Brooklyn, Ignorant Shit, Fallin', American Gangster, Success

Mediocre: Sweet, No Hook, I Know, Party Life, Pray, American Dreamin'

Clunkers: Blue Magic

Abominations: Say Hello

After the problems with Kingdom Come, Jay-Z made a conscious effort to come back to his roots with American Gangster. From a marketing standpoint, it was a brilliant ploy. Artistically, it was also pretty damn good. The lyrics were far better than anything on Kingdom Come and it seemed like it was right in Jay-Z's wheelhouse. Taking inspiration from a movie and essentially placing the stories in this album before the stories from Reasonable Doubt was very interesting. I'm afraid that this album will be viewed as a period album and it won't have the longevity of a Blueprint or Vol. 2. But, it has much less filler than normal Jay-Z albums. It's focused and tight. I listened to this album a lot for about 3 weeks and then it kind of fell out of rotation.

After reading this post, I've realized four things: 1) Jay-Z has made a lot of good songs, 2) Jay-Z has made a lot of bad songs, 3) I don't really care about the bad songs, and 4) trying to classify every song on these CDs was a fruitless task (although it has taken me about 2 years to do - seriously, this post is the Chinese Democracy of blog posts). It seems like some of the CDs with high amount of bad songs are my favorites and some of the CDs with the least amount of bad songs aren't that high on my list. I guess it's a case of selective listening - I simply like what I like. I ignore the crap and ride or die (mostly ride) with my favorites.

Final Album Ranking:

1. The Dynasty
2. The Blueprint
3. The Black Album
4. Volume 2
5. Reasonable Doubt
6. Volume 3
7. American Gangster
8. Volume 1
9. Blueprint 2
10. Kingdom Come

20 comments:

Sporta said...

There are two disagreements my inner rap nerd has to speak out on....

1. The Dynasty is nowhere near the best Jay-Z album, but I respect the time you put into making this.

2. "The Watcher Pt.2" needs to go from banger to "classic" status.

Jay SLAYED his verse. I love the entire tone of the song.. like let me sit you niggas down for a second and explain something right quick...

"I blew breath to you midgets, i gave life to the game
It's only right I got the right to be king."

Anonymous said...

im sorry kid...check up on your raps..this is wackest list i've ever seen....maybe you just started listening to rap, so until you put time in...fall way backson..peace

Anonymous said...

1. blueprint
2. reasonable doubt
3. the black album
4. vol 2
5. dynasty
6. vol 1 (which jay said was thisclose to being a classic)
7. american gangster
8. vol 3
9. kingdom come
10. blueprint 2 (but blueprint 2.1 would be higher since it got rid of most of the crap AND ADDED LA LA LA which is highly underrated in terms of production and lyrics)

UMass said...

Blueprint- U Don't Know

Anonymous said...

I also hear that Jay Z likes to rap naked with other men, if ya know what I mean.

omid said...

dude, hell of a nice job on this. 99 Problems is ABSOLUTELY a classic masterpiece. But you're right, with the role these albums took as soundtracks to periods of our upbringing, the time and place and personal meaning supercede the track itself. Damn, that came out dorky as shit, but...well you,re the one who took two hours to write the fucking thing. So clearly im among friends. Anyway, this post was fantastic.

Jivas said...

How the FUCK is "Renegade" not categorized in "Classics"? What? Just because the true genius on the record came from Eminem and not Hova doesn't mean this wasn't an absolutely classic record.

Come on.

WTF?? said...

1. Reasonable doubt

No questions, if you know hip hop you agree.

Anonymous said...

man im a HUGE HIP HOP HEAD..and i cant belive this

Mediocre: Can I Live, Regrets

dude them are the two best songs on the whole cd...one of the best flows on rythem on the 2nd best hip hop cd of all time "I miss him, long as I'm livin he's livin through memories
He's there to kill all my suicidal tendencies
In heaven lookin over me, or in hell, keepin it cozy
I'm comin life on these streets ain't what it's supposed to be"

and can I live
..BEST LYRIC OF THE ENTIRE CD
"I'd rather die enormous than live dormant that's how we on it"

Anonymous said...

o and i forgot taht...how can "jivas" say eminem made "renegades" classic.."LOL" doesnt do that justice

Anonymous said...

First off, you cats is commercial, Hovi Baby is the best song Jay ever did, followed by Where I'm From. Let's not forget Lucky Me, but you cats were still stuck on Pac. I don't have to speak on the est of the classics, just go back, liste again, cause for seven straight summers, critics might not admit it, but nobody in rap did it quite like he did it..... 1

Anonymous said...

lol your list is shit.

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