Pandamonium at London Kentish Town Bull & Gate

...on the bright side, at no point does he feel an unusual bond with [I]Starlight Express[/I], or the need to share it with us....

An example of [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s current self-belief came when he was accused of only having dollars in mind when sampling the squawking brats from [I]Annie [/I]for his ‘Hard Knock Life’ single. Mr Z countered that it had more to do with him and those fictional orphans being united in battle against the establishment.

Which can’t be an easy line to deliver without blushing. Debate continues as to whether that single qualifies as gamesome pop genius or gruesome twaddle, but such has been its radio-hogging presence, it seemed probable it would eclipse his latest album. However, when ‘Volume 2…’ came out in the US, it held the Number One slot for five weeks. This was both a new record for a rap release and an unexpected triumph for Jay-Z who, following his ‘playa’ sound-defining debut album, ‘Reasonable Doubt’, was let down by a surfeit of slushy production on his second LP, ‘Volume 1… In My Lifetime’. Consequently, while still dazed after the death of friend Notorious BIG, the press went for him and [a]Jay-Z[/a] threatened to quit.

This, then, is him re-establishing his enthusiasm for the rap game. Lyrically, it’s much the same mix of cautionary tales and chest-beating bravado as proffered before. So if this is a “new, improved [a]Jay-Z[/a]” – as the opening track ‘Hand It Down’ declares – that’s due to him ditching his regular producer, Damon Dash, and employing an illustrious roll-call of in-vogue wizards.

With Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri and Kid Capri among those at hand, the payoff is a cleverly urbane sound, embracing fashionable electro pop and the suave shine of R&B. Particularly on ‘Paper Chase’, where he’s joined by bad-ass diva Foxy Brown, and on the slinky ‘Money Ain’t A Thang’, [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s epicurean stylings surge to new levels, forming a futurist soul thang seemingly purpose-built for large cars cruising freeways with enormous stereos cranked all the way up. Or at least for imagining you’re in those surroundings.

All of which makes for a periodically good album, but by no means a great one. It’s too dour, strangely starved of the sprightly charisma which [a]Jay-Z[/a] has in the flesh, to deserve gushing acclaim. The odd snoresome clunker like the ‘Theme From Shaft’-sampling ‘Reservoir Dogs’ doesn’t help. Nor indeed do [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s only moderate rapping skills from time to time.

Still, on the bright side, at no point does he feel an unusual bond with [I]Starlight Express[/I], or the need to share it with us.