The Jigga, powerless. In a manner of speaking...
Just a year ago, the idea of Jay-Z making an acoustic LP would have had Biggie Smalls turning in his urns. Jigga‘s third and fourth albums had been beamed from the computers of producers like Timbaland, Swizz Beats and the Neptunes; packed with state-of-the-art digital beats which Jay rode like a Playstation champion. But last year (well, virtually last month)’s ‘The Blueprint’ saw Jay-Z rapping over full-on 70s soul, to magnificently emotional effect. Why not, some bright spark at MTV must have suggested, recreate those tracks with a live band instead of samples?
It’s a good idea that goes way beyond the ancient (and usually disappointing) live rap template of two turntables and a microphone. But ‘Unplugged’ goes too far in the other direction. For a start, it’s about as unplugged as Blackpool illuminations. Call it nickpicking, but since when were the Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes piano acoustic instruments? And the band in question, conscious hip hoppers The Roots, smooth over the jagged edges of Jay’s most biting moments with overly slick muso efficiency. Their sawing strings on ‘Takeover’ are no substitute for the magisterial thump of the original track’s Doors sample, while ‘Izzo (HOVA)’ suffers from interminable doodling over which Jay-Z, tongue firmly in cheek, declares ‘Welcome to my poetry reading’.
Yet Jay‘s natural talent is such that he shines almost regardless of context – even when MTV rules dictate that he can’t even swear! Skittering over ‘Jigga That Nigga’, defeating the ear-fraying backing vocals on ‘Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)’, this is the sound of a man at the top of his game.
Though some tracks are pointlessly thrown away in a medley, ‘Unplugged’ underlines what an amazing back catalogue the man possesses, a Greatest Hits of dreams. (Hearing him and Mary J Blige rocket from 0 to 90 on a medley of ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ and ‘Family Affair’ is pretty cool, too.)
You need Jay-Hova in your life, but this isn’t the place to start. Get ‘The Blueprint’, not a pale facsimile.