Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Reasonable Doubt [Roc-A-Fella/Priority, 1996] A-
  • In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1997] **
  • Vol. 2 . . . Hard Nock Life [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1998] ***
  • Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter [Roc-A-Fella, 1999] A
  • The Dynasty: Roc La Familia [Def Jam, 2000] B
  • The Blueprint [Roc-A-Fella, 2001] A-
  • Unplugged [Roc-A-Fella, 2001] ***
  • The Blueprint 2 [Roc-A-Fella, 2002] *
  • The Black Album [Roc-A-Fella, 2003] A
  • Kingdom Come [Roc-A-Fella, 2006] ***
  • American Gangster [Roc-A-Fella, 2007] *
  • The Blueprint 3 [The Null Corporation, 2009] A-
  • Magna Carta Holy Grail [Roc-A-Fella, 2013] B+
  • 4:44 [Roc Nation/UMG, 2017] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Reasonable Doubt [Roc-A-Fella/Priority, 1996]
Designed for the hip-hop cognoscenti and street aesthetes who still swear he never topped it, his self-financed debut album is richer than any outsider could have known, and benefits from everything we'vesince learned about the minor crack baron who put his money where his mouth was. You can hear him marshalling a discipline known to few rappers and many crack barons, and that asceticism undercuts the intrinsic delight of his rhymes--not once does he let go like Biggie spitting his viciously funny little "Shoot your daughter in the calf muscle." He's so set on proving how hard he is that his idea of a hook is the piano loop Premier runs behind the magnificent "D'Evils." Once he became a rap baron he could afford less austere producers. A-

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1997]
arrogant yet diffident, ruthless yet cute--a scary original ("[Always Be My] Sunshine," "Real Niggaz") **

Vol. 2 . . . Hard Nock Life [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1998]
meet Keybmaster Swizz Beats, the missing link between Charles Strouse and Too Short ("Hard Knock Life," "If I Should Die") ***

Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter [Roc-A-Fella, 1999]
Sean Carter isn't the first crime-linked hitmaker with a penchant for kicking broads out of bed at 6:15 in the morning. Frank Sinatra beat him to it. Right, Sinatra never boasted about his own callousness--not publicly, in song--and that's a big difference. Jay-Z has too many units tied up in playing the now-a-rapper-now-a-thug "reality" game with his customers, thugs and fantasists both, and only when he lets the token Amil talk back for a verse does he make room for female reality. But he goes for a rugged, expansive vigor, nailing both come-fly-with-me cosmopolitanism and the hunger for excitement that's turned gangster hangouts into musical hotbeds from Buenos Aires to Kansas City. You don't expect a song called "Big Pimpin' " to sound as if the tracks were recorded in Cairo. This one does. A

The Dynasty: Roc La Familia [Def Jam, 2000]
His arrogance is earned, but that doesn't make it interesting, especially since his whine isn't--the same habit of childish self-pity that generated cognitive dissonance when he was coming up on the snazziest swizzbeats in the kingdom is annoying pathology with knockoff protégés sending in productions by cellular. And wouldn't Memphis Bleek be more, I dunno, affecting contributing a few answering-machine cameos, from upstate maybe? Right, "Jigga" 's still got "skills." So does LL Cool J, whose more accomplished record means nothing to nobody. This is a major falloff, a lazy cash-in no matter who won't admit it. B

The Blueprint [Roc-A-Fella, 2001]
What is it pigs like Jigga say as they spread your legs and accuse you of wanting their money? Lay back and enjoy it? Assuming you don't believe this album is great art or reparation for chattel slavery, that's the way it is with Jay-Z's power pop. His flow is fluent, sure. But his confidence reigns supreme. Likewise his hooks, whether purchased, hired, or just what he was feeling at the time, and his rhymes, whose deepest cleverness is in their apparent effortlessness. Like Star Wars or Windows 95, he unlocks the gate to a luxurious passivity that may not be good for you in the long run but does the trick at the time. A-

Unplugged [Roc-A-Fella, 2001]
"Jay-Z's poetry reading"--pronounced "rea-in" not because it's more ghetto but because it's more childish ("Song Cry," "Izzo [H.O.V.A.]"); ***

The Blueprint 2 [Roc-A-Fella, 2002]
anyone who samples Paul Anka when he wanted Frank is no longer Jehovah and will never be the Chairman of the Board ("U Don't Know [Remix]," "Poppin' Tags") *

The Black Album [Roc-A-Fella, 2003]
History has vindicated this album. On a meticulously hyped valedictory no one believed would be his actual farewell, the fanfares, ovations, maternal reminiscences, and vamp-till-ready shout-outs were overblown at best. But on an album where the biggest rapper of all time announces that he's the biggest rapper of all time, they're prophetic. Bitch about Kingdom Come and American Gangster if you must, but not The Blueprint 3 or Watch the Throne, and not his label presidency, amassed fortune, or close personal relationship with Warren Buffett. He's got a right to celebrate his autobiography in rhyme because he's on track to become a personage who dwarfs any mere rapper, and not only can he hire the best help dark green can buy, he can make it sing. Tracks four through nine enlist Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, Eminem, and Rick Rubin. Each one sounds different, each one means different, and each one kills. I'm also touched when "Justify My Thug" tag-teams Madonna and Run-D.M.C. Hova if you hear me. A

Kingdom Come [Roc-A-Fella, 2006]
The pleasures of going legit ("Minority Report," "30 Something"). ***

American Gangster [Roc-A-Fella, 2007]
Jay-Z, that's a brand name, like Pepsi, that's a brand name--he stands behind it, he guarantees it, even if you don't know him any more than you know the chairman of Universal Music ("Blue Magic," "Say Hello"). *

The Blueprint 3 [The Null Corporation, 2009]
For a record consisting almost entirely of boasts about being the best, the ex-prexy's official comeback--and also, let it be noted, his inaugural project with or is it for his new corporate partner--is fairly superb. He brings it off because he is the best, because he's documented more achievements than most bigmouths, and because he holds chits for miles. Not only are chief beatmakers Timbaland and Kanye West co-equals, he's gotten A work out of them--cf. Timbo's sample-free spirals on the atypically unbraggadocious "Venus Vs. Mars" and the atypically staccato clap-for-'em West designs for "A Star Is Born." Both are buried mid-disc, just where you'd think Jay would be sneaking in the weak s---. None of that here--though you have a right to think he's coming on too strong. A-

Magna Carta Holy Grail [Roc-A-Fella, 2013]
After too many plays, this holding action won me over. Deeper than catchy, Timbaland's music is the precondition on an album that pits Basquiat against Blue--black man as artistic rebel versus black man as family stalwart. But the breakthrough only came when I started grinning every time I heard him advise his daughter regarding the Basquiat in his kitchen: "Lean on the shit, Blue, you own it." And though later he swears, "I love my niggas more than my own blood," nowhere is black more beautiful than in the person of his own wife: "Sleep every night with Mona Lisa/The modern version with better features." In short, family wins both times. Give it up to the one where Beyonce pledges gangsta devotion and, best of all, the one where the would-be billionaire looks back at the betrayals of his own departed head of family with something that feels like dread. B+

4:44 [Roc Nation/UMG, 2017]
At its frequent peaks, this unusual album nails the understated mastery it's going for--the calm candor of a titan with plenty to own up to hence plenty to teach. He's so discreet you may not notice that he can still outrhyme the small fry--"fuck with me"-"cutlery"-"butlers be"-"hustlers be," say, all parsing as "The Story of OJ." But clever's not his program. From the subtle beats No I.D. builds from Sean Carter's all-time playlist, he means to pretend he's just talking to us, nowhere more than in the painfully detailed "4:44" a.k.a. "I Apologize" a.k.a. "I suck at love." But just as "4:44" resorts for no discernible reason to an "I cut off my nose to spite my face," "The Story of OJ" is marred by a pun on "Dumbo" that's funny twice max and very nearly wrecked by the deplorable "You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?" The answer, in case you were wondering: "credit." Which is an OK principle--Jay-Z isn't the only rap elder advising youngbloods to buy property instead of Lambos. But there are plenty of similar lapses on an album where "Legacy" celebrates his money, some of it secured by other people's artworks, rather than his art. He's teaching black capitalism, not weighing every word much less manning up and learning to love. Compared to white capitalism, I'll take it. But unlike learning to love, it has plenty of downside. A-