Jay-Z – Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life (2LP)
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Coming on the heels of two strong records that revealed the extent of Jay-Z's talents, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (it may be titled Vol. 2, but it's his third album, arguably his fourth if you count the Streets Is Watching soundtrack) is a little bit of a relative disappointment. Jay-Z had established himself as a savvy, street-smart rapper on those two records, but with Hard Knock Life he decides to shoot for crossover territory, for better and for worse. At his best, he shows no fear -- witness how the title track shamelessly works a Broadway showstopper from Annie into a raging ghetto cry, yet keeps it smooth enough for radio. It's a stunning single, but unfortunately, it promises more than the rest of the album can deliver. Jay-Z remains a first-rate lyricist and MC, but too often his subjects are tired, especially since he winds up with no new revelations. Unfortunately, the same could be said for his music. For every "Hard Knock Life," there are a couple of standard post-gangsta jams that don't catch hold -- and that's really too bad, because the best moments (including several tracks produced by such stars as Timbaland, Kid Capri, and Jermaine Dupri) are state-of-the-art, R&B-inflected mainstream hip-hop. And that's the problem -- before, Jay-Z wasn't trying to play by the rules of the mainstream, but here he's trying to co-opt them. At times he does, but the times that fall flat have less strength or integrity than their predecessors, and that's what makes the entire record not quite as effective, despite its numerous high points. [Shortly after its initial release, Hard Knock Life was reissued with a pair of bonus tracks: "It's Alright," pulled from the Streets Is Watching soundtrack, and "Money Ain't a Thang," a catchy collabo single from Jermaine Dupri's Life in 1472 album.]