By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
By Natalie Gallagher
By Erik Thompson
By Jeff Gage
By Loren Green
SHAWN CARTER MAY be the least charming hip-hop thug ever to go platinum. Oily and murderous as they may be or have been, Snoop Dogg and Biggie Smalls are and were gifted with ingratiating personalities. But the inheritor of Biggie's NYC crossover crown is one cold-blooded jerk. That he's conscious enough of that fact to sum up his life philosophy with the declaration "Money over bitches, nigga/Stick to the script," makes him seem all the more callous. Jay-Z takes only the coldest pleasure in the braggadocio he celebrates, the sexploits he recalls, and the wordplay he spins.
But he's got good enough taste in beatmasters to pull off his scenarios, and he's willing, like Biggie, to countenance "R&B" backing tracks crafty enough to avoid "sellout" cries from the streets. The standard groove here is a post-Timbaland herky-jerk that diverges into either ominous Wu-Tang bump or Seventies-inflected soul. And so the Curtis Mayfield-style "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It to Me)" is so beguiling you might not even hear Jay-Hova caution the avaricious honey in question that she "better ride nice dick" if she expects him to unroll another wad of cash. In fitting with the imagined "dynasty" Jay plans to launch, much of the blame for rough manners can be sloughed off to his cohorts Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel (who claims, "I used to wild off embalming fluid").
Nonetheless, there are marks of maturity here. Not only does he lay off the B-musical snippets for the kids; Jay indulges in the sort of depraved-because-he's-deprived narrative usually reserved for warmer performers. But these rare shows of emotion--a bitter open letter to his deadbeat dad, and apologies to the women in his life--are effective in their self-serving ways. And the soft wail lifted from Harold Melvin's "I Miss You" makes "This Can't Be Life" the most moving bit of hip-hop social realism since Ghostface Killah's "All That I Got Is You." Of course, in the end, all that autobiography exists for the sake of justifying his present boasts, such as, "I took trips with so much shit in the whip/That if the cops pulled me over the dogs would get sick." Like the man himself says, "Different toilet/Same shit."
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