Kings of New York

Blueprintoffers the full range of Jay-Z. Lighthearted fare like the distaff anthem "Girls, Girls, Girls" and the enthusiastic, boastful "Hola Hovito" might seem trite pouring from the mouth of another. But Jay-Z retains the remarkable ability to dance along cliché's edge without being cut, and on Blueprinthe's a veritable Sammy Davis Jr. So a notion as old as rap itself—how many girls I got—gets a welcome fresh spin. And on "Hola Hovito," an even more well-worn rap concept—how fly I am—gets a shot in the arm from Jay's ever inventive flow: "If you haven't heard, I'm Michael, Magic, and Bird/All rolled in one/ 'Cause none got more flows than Young/Plus got more flows to come/And if I ain't better than Big, I'm the closest one."

For those who prefer their hip-hop with a tad more gutter edge, Jay obliges, delivering compositions like "Takeover" and the defiant "You Don't Know," where, in case it had slipped the mind, Jay drops pointed reminders of his business acumen and street-dealing past. But it's his personal and introspective musings on tunes like the autobiographical "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)" and the love lament "Song Cry" that bring real poignancy to Blueprint. In the midst of the champagne wishes and caviar dreams, it's easy to overlook Jay's skills as a songwriter, and he's penned few better than "Song Cry," a moving, honest letter from a hustler to his long-standing, long-faithful girl who, finally, has had enough. Hustler or no, it's a sentiment with which any man who has taken the woman by his side for granted, and paid a price, can relate: "I know the way a nigga livin' was wack/But you don't get a nigga back like that/Shit, I'm a man with pride, you don't do shit like that/You don't just pick up and leave and leave me sick like that/You don't throw away what we had, just like that . . . "

An even more moving version of that tune resides on MTV Unplugged, the album version of Jay's recent live performance on MTV's Unplugged. "I got lost for a minute there," a sheepish Jay admits near the end of the song after falling silent for a spell, mesmerized by the soulful, aching riffs of Jaguar, the female vocalist providing backup. Most of the record, released on December 18, provides similarly powerful stuff. With the Roots serving as backing band—a pairing that may have once seemed strange—the album delivers rousing renditions of material from Blueprintand past albums, all of it cleverly arranged. Hip-hop with live instrumentation has seldom sounded this good.

Jay-Z, unthugged
photo: Jonathan Mannion
Jay-Z, unthugged

And what of Nas? His prospects looked shaky, for history did not stand by his side. He had to deal with three albums judged inferior to IllmaticIt Was Writtenand I Am, both inspired in spots, the former more so than the latter, and the even more pedestrian Nastradamus, his last full-length—as well as the rampaging juggernaut of Jay-Z's success and public worship.

"That might be it for Nas," folk muttered just weeks ago. "No way he can answer that Jay-Z joint; all he can do now is put out a good album." Well, to the consternation of some and the delight of others, Nasir Jones has done both.

The quick verdict: Stillmaticis exceptional. Some may wonder if that assessment is an exercise in yearning, a desire to reward hip-hop's once favorite son for time lost now that he's again produced strong material. The answer is a resounding no. Even if Nas the lyricist hadn't gone missing for much of a decade, cloaked in the awkward-fitting exoskeletons of cocaine lords and street playas, Stillmaticwould still be a remarkable achievement. Ten years ago, Nas coined himself on the Main Source classic "Live at the Barbecue"—Streets' Disciple. That persona returns in full force on Stillmatic, painting over the yawning hole long sitting in the ozone layer of a hip-hop world largely devoid of meaningful observation.

Take the DJ Premier-assisted composition "2nd Childhood." Over Premier's meld of melodic texture, subtly complex drum programming, and signature scratching, Nas weaves a narrative of dashed dreams and unfulfilled adulthood with the kind of languid cadence and beautifully sweeping poetry that once made folk anoint him the Second Coming: "Junior high school dropout/teachers never cared/They was paid to just to show up and leave, no one succeeds/So he moves with his peers/Different blocks, different years, sitting on/Different ventures like it's musical chairs/All his peoples moved on in life/He on the corner at night/With young dudes it's them he wanna be like/It's sad but it's fun to him right/He never grew up/Thirty-one and can't give his youth up/He's in his second childhood."

Or consider the return of Large Professor-like Primo, a key Illmaticcollaborator, who serves up the bass-heavy, effect-laden sonic bed for "Rewind," a song on which Nas takes one commanding verse to paint the picture of a murder plot—backwards. Call it a Mementofor the hip-hop set. Producer L.E.S and AZ complete old home week on "The Flyest," a superslick number. AZ hasn't sounded this good in years, particularly by the third verse where he and Nas trade lines like the hungry, young MCs they were on Illmatic's "Life's a Bitch."

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