Fresh off the heels of what most people consider a classic hip-hop album, in 1997 Jay-Z returned with In My Lifetime Vol. 1, a jagged effort, with an awkward schism between commercial and underground records that seriously tarnishes his sophomore album. It seems as though The Hitmen, Diddy’s production company, who produced the majority of the album, simply did not understand Jay-Z as an artist, that they had not heard his debut and did not understand what tracks suited his lyrical content and style. It is also clear that Jay-Z, as Executive Producer, is still a bit unclear about himself as an artist, as this album, somewhat in the vein of The Notorious B.I.G.’s two-disc opus Life After Death, tries to be everything to everyone. And while that album was largely a triumph, Jay-Z’s own doesn’t work nearly as well.
The first two tracks provide ample evidence of Jay-Z’s own competing artistic impulses. A Million and 1 Questions is a beautifully intricate and evocative, yet firmly underground, introductory track. The beat by the excellent DJ Premier changes from a lighter beat with a sample of Aaliyah’s One in a Million, coupled with immodestly introspective lyrics-during which he wonders aloud, among other things, how he measures up to deceased friend The Notorious B.I.G., to an even grimier beat with attendant threats aimed at unnamed foes. This is followed by The City of Mine, which is a cute but forced interpolation of Glenn Frey’s You Belong to the City, where he concludes that he is in fact heir to B.I.G.’s legacy. Both tracks address largely the same topic, but whereas the production of the first is perfectly suited to Jay-Z’s lyrical density, the second would have benefited greatly from fewer syllables per verse.
This critical oversight-of not simplifying his verses to match the production is understandable, particular as this is just Jay-Z’s second album in a little over a year. Less forgivable is that the album is rife with mediocre commercial tracks and marred by throwaway verses from guest stars. The aforementioned The City is Mine is a showy song with a syrupy hook that is odds with Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt or his In My Lifetime Vol. 1 paranoia. I Know What Girls Like is one of the absolute worst recordings in Jay-Z’s entire catalog, with unspectacular verses over a thoroughly unlikeable beat. Sunshine, a duet with Foxy Brown is ostensibly weaker than the previous album’s Aint No… because The Hitmen’s production overpower both sets of vocals, and the hook saps any sense of seriousness from the song.
It goes without saying that none of these tracks match the down-to-earth wit of a Juicy, the relentless charisma of a Big Poppa or the flat-out catchiness of a Hypnotize. Jay’s strength lies in subtle yet vehemently cerebral verse replete with insights about inner-city New York. Unfortunately, neither Jay-Z nor his Co-Executive Producer Damon “Dame” Dash are talented enough at this point to marry Jay’s style with an appropriate and popular sound as Diddy was able to do with B.I.G.. Jay’s attempts to match B.I.G.’s songwriting success are this album’s biggest failures.
But then you have the underground tracks where Jay-Z shines: Where I’m From, a gripping description of the Brooklyn of the rapper’s past, would have easily fit amongst other vintage Jay-Z tracks on Reasonable Doubt, as would Rap Game/Crack Game (in which the rapper compares the two) or Streets is Watching. The latter track is a minor hip-hop masterpiece, featuring some of his most intricate rhymes; its tone is redolent of Can I Live from the rapper’s debut (though inexplicably, the censored version is featured on the explicit version of the album). Face Off feels like a male version of Ain’t No… with Jay-Z and Sauce Money trading raucous lines back and forth each verse. And You Must Love Me is one of the most compelling and personal records of his career, wherein he touches on his guilt over his crimes, including accidentally shooting his brother as a child.
As far as guests are concerned, then-popular Lil Kim’s verse is incidental, as is Foxy Brown’s verse. Sauce Money is great and once again, complements Jay’s own lyrical acuity and complexity with his own. Too Short staccato rhymes are complimentary, but the guests as a whole were stronger on Reasonable Doubt. You almost wish some of the artists sampled in fact contributed verses, such as Andre 3000 of Outkast or Nas, both of whom are sampled on Rap Game/Crack Game.
Imaginary Player is an ode to Jay-Z’s richer-than-thou ethos, exemplified by lines like “Your single was ninety-nine cents/Mine was four bucks.” But it’s Lucky Me that serves as the ethos of the album, a glossy beat with meditative lyrics that barely fit. Here, though Jay-Z focuses less on the perils of the street life, and more on the perils of fame, which replaces Reasonable Doubt’s Mafia undercurrent throughout In My Lifetime Vol. 1. And while the humor, sincerity, and earnestness of Reasonable Doubt is still here, he is clearly more aware of himself as a rap star, more confident, and much bolder. He is also seemingly impatient: as much as he is concerned with the dark side of fame, he wants more of it. Seeing himself the heir to B.I.G.’s legacy, he wants us to accept it without reservation, and afford him B.I.G.’s success. Depending on your perspective of Jay-Z’s own body of work, this may be off-putting and disrespectful, or spot-on and appropriate.
The commercial records are less likely to stick with you after a listen or two; the underground records do however remain. In My Lifetime Vol. 1 is worth a listen though, to understand Jay-Z’s development as an artist better. But if you don’t really care how the Jay-Z of Reasonable Doubt became one of the most well-known rappers alive, there are some great songs here too.
XXL Staff, The Making of Reasonable Doubt, XXL
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Labels: A Review of Jay-Z's In My Lifetime, Vol. 1