Review Summary: After his classic debut, Jay-Z takes a more commercial route that results in an album that seems far removed from "Reasonable Doubt."
Coming off the critical success of his debut that was hailed as an instant classic, realizing that man can’t live off props alone, Jay decided to align himself with Puff Daddy in order to produce a more mainstream, comercially successful album. Say what you will about Puffy but the man can make a hit and was at the height of his success after Biggie's "Life After Death," Mase's "Harlem World" and his own "No Way Out," the dancing, shiny-suited man was riding high.
After a Carlito’s Way/Scarface inspired intro, "I ain't no rapper, I'm a hustler, It just so happens that I know how to rap," things start off with a pounding piano courtesy of DJ Premier for "A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More" then the beat switches up midway through the track to slower, more mellow groove and Jay rides the beat smoothly without missing a beat.
On "The City Is Mine," Jigga proclaims himself the king of New York and takes the torch from his friend Biggie's (not yet)cold, dead hands. The chorus is provided by Blackstreet, an interpolation of Glenn Frey’s "You Belong to the City," a bit corny, angling for radioplay but Jay’s smooth flow and lyricism holds the track together. Puffy and Lil’ Kim join in for the awful "I Know What Girls Like" over the old-school beat from the Boogie Boys’ "A Fly Girl" this track fails on every level.
For "Rap Game/Crack Game," the voice of future nemesis Nas is sampled yet again.On album closer "You Must Love Me," Jay shows much heart and emotion, talking about his mother, his homey and his girl. He uses a verse to tell a story for each:
Like a stranger damn I just shot my n***a
And ran off into the night as if it was not my n***a
Left the scene how could I go out that way
Still you asked to see me in the hospital the next day
You must love me.
It’s a very heartfelt, touching moment, each story seems as if you were there watching him do these people wrong but they forgive him and show their love for him. With a hook sung beautifully by Kelly Price and a slow beat provided by Nashiem Myrick from Puffy’s Hitmen that gives it an adequately somber feel, this one of the best tracks of his long and amazing (although spotty) career.
This album is a mixed bag, most tracks are above average or better, some great moments like "Imaginary Player" but some tracks like the Foxy Brown collabo "(Always Be My) Sunshine" are simply terrible. It’ hard to understand how the same person who wrote a song as brilliant as "You Must Love Me," could also do something as abominable as "I Know What Girls Like." I would like to blame Puffy for that track but sadly this is something that would plague Jay for the rest of his career.