Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Jay-Z: The Hits Collection, Volume One is a compilation album by American hip-hop artist Jay-Z it was released on November 22, 2010 by Def Jam and Roc Nation. Although greatest hits compilations of Jay-Z have been released internationally before, this will be the first of its kind to be released in the United States, in which it will be available in Standard Edition, Deluxe Edition, and Collector's Edition Box Set as well as a 3-disc deluxe vinyl. The album features four tracks from The Black Album, three from The Blueprint 3 and one from each of Jay's other solo albums dating back to Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life.
"One of Jay-Z's biggest UK hits, Empire State of Mind, possesses a title that can be taken different ways. It alludes to the rapper's hometown, New York, a sing-along celebration of what its streets have to offer. But it also outlines the man's commercial mindset. Rewind to 2001's The Blueprint and he's making a long-held business attitude clear: "I sell ice in the winter / I sell fire in Hell / I am a hustler baby / I'll sell water to a well." This focus has rarely wavered since he set up his own label, Roc-A-Fella, in 1996.
What haven't been quite as consistent since The Blueprint are Jay-Z's long-players. 2003's The Black Album, at the time purported to be his final release, was an award-winning mix of abrasive bangers and smooth hits. But it's the exception, the rest of his 21st century collections only haphazardly rewarding (strong singles, but no little filler). So it's odd that only one Blueprint track makes the cut on this fourth hits compilation, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), though "Volume One" suggests a sequel may include more.
While something from rightly revered 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt would have offered an interesting insight into rawer early material, the quality of what's included here is high. It's a neat summarisation of Jay-Z's chart-dominating days, arranged to appeal to relative newcomers. The earliest track, Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem), might have irritated some back in 98, but it took its maker worldwide. It also illustrates, vividly, Jay-Z's well-tuned ear for a crafty steal - a sample from the musical Annie, sitting high in the rap charts? Nobody saw that coming. The harder beats of The Black Album's 99 Problems and Dirt Off Your Shoulder (two of four from said LP) owe much to their respective producers, Rick Rubin and Timbaland. This is another area where Jay-Z has been savvy: high-profile collaborators have included The Neptunes, Kanye West, Dr Dre and Eminem. He might be one of the best lyricists around, but it's the fine blend of MC and producer - and on-record guests - that's seen Jay-Z ascend through the ranks, from Brooklyn's Finest alongside The Notorious B.I.G. to globe-conquering hook-ups with Rihanna and Alicia Keys.
Braggadocio is prevalent in rap, but when Jay-Z adopts his big-man-on-campus swagger he's got the sales to back it up. These 14 tracks are just a snapshot of what's taken him this far, but every single one is essential to a story that shows no sign of stopping." - BBC
"Is anybody paying attention to the beef between 50 Cent and Rick Ross? I've been following it from a distance, largely because, quite frankly, I'm always curious to see how far these public feuds will actually go. I'm doing it "from a distance" because it involves two artists who don't usually hold my attention. Even if I was heavily invested in the participants, the drill would be the same: one rapper drops a line in a record or offers a comment in an interview about another rapper, the second rapper counters with a song dissing the first rapper, the first rapper counters the second rapper's counter on YouTube, the second rapper responds on his MySpace page, and on and on. While the diss records from rap beefs generally provide a creative and competitive spark, the attention we give them can overshadow the attention we give to more "positive" offerings.
So, instead of rap beef, let's talk about rap tributes. How do rappers honor hip-hop icons, leaders, comrades, and foot soldiers?
Namedropping:The easiest way to give another rapper props? Namedropping. Sometimes, all it takes is a clever comparison, as when Erick Sermon of EPMD rhymed, in "Chill", "I'm massive dope, funky, who's deffer? / Yo, when I express myself like Salt 'N Pepa." Get it? Salt 'N Pepa had a song called "Express Yourself". As far as namedropping goes, the Game is well known, and well criticized, for his habit of dropping the names of his favorites into his rhymes. One day, I'm going to set aside enough time to tally the number of namedrops on his albums.
If you twist my arm, you can get me to admit that namedropping can be an annoying habit. But, even after the arm-twisting, I'm going to insist that the technique, annoying as it might be, fits within the concept of rap songs as extensions of the historical and storytelling traditions through which important names and dates are passed along from person to person and from generation to generation.
From this standpoint, namedropping keeps rappers lyrically and stylistically connected to one another. On Below the Heavens - the much-acclaimed debut produced by Exile - California rapper Blu quipped in his verse from "The Narrow Path" that he was playing the song "Escapism" by Pete Rock. There is, of course, the obvious meaning that he digs that song and was actually listening to it. And, yes, of course, Blu might also be mentioning "Escapism" (or "Escape" as the song was titled on the cover of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's The Main Ingredient) to underscore Below the Heavens's overall motif of needing to escape from life's dilemmas and troubles. But there's also the possibility that, however unintentional, Blu's reference helped to connect the duo of Blu & Exile to the duo of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. I wouldn't disagree too much with drawing parallels between the two pairs. To hear the same technique used with similar effect by an older artist, check out Q-Tip deftly namedropping a roster of hip-hop colleagues on 2008's "Life Is Better".
There used to be a time when rap albums featured whole songs devoted to shouting out friends and comrades. Back in the early '90s, Ice Cube spent three whole minutes to say "what up" in "I Gotta Say What Up!!!", shouting out everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and the "trigger-happy muthafuckin'" Geto Boys to Humpty Hump, "'cause he makin' more than Donald Trump".
LL Cool J handled things a little differently in 1993, weaving the names of hip-hop artists and song titles into a moderately coherent narrative called "Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings". With lines like, "Rub you down with warm iced tea [Ice-T] / Make you feel Brand Nubian instantly", I'm not sure I fully understand what the song's about. At least I get all of the rap references. Incidentally, LL Cool J played this name game earlier on Mama Said Knock You Out's "Milky Cereal". There, he constructed his narrative from the names of breakfast cereals. It starts off with a female named "Frosted Flake", who "loved to bowl", taking him to a club named "Cheerio". And that's just the first verse!
Covers and Remakes:All right. So, let's say you're a rapper and you want to do more to honor the revered members of your profession than drop their names in your verses. You'd like to remake one of your favorite hip-hop tunes. You always liked Big Daddy Kane, so you consider tinkering with the arrangement of one of his classics, maybe "Young, Gifted & Black" or "Smooth Operator". Not a bad idea, but this sort of thing gets kind of tricky (and I'm not just saying that because Run-D.M.C. said it).
Doing covers and remakes of songs isn't the norm in hip-hop. While I've counted about 20 covers (at least!) of Rihanna's hit song "Umbrella", covers and remakes of hip-hop songs aren't as plentiful. A couple of popular and, mostly, successful renditions are Snoop redoing Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di" as well as Biz Markie's "Vapors", and Def Squad (Redman, Erick Sermon, Keith Murray) remaking the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight". You'll find, on the lesser known, but arguably more powerful side: UGK's revamping of Marly Marl's "The Symphony" in "Next Up", Pharoahe Monch's inspired take on Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome", and Mos Def and Talib Kweli's clever rewording of Slick Rick's "A Children's Story". Rappers from "underground" circles have gotten into the act too, with Superiority Complex's version of A Tribe Called Quest's "Butter" and Blu's completely renovated version of EPMD's "You Gots to Chill" on his "C.R.A.C. Knuckles" project The Piece Talks with Ta'Raach.
Perhaps the best example of the remake-as-tribute paradigm is J. Period's mixtape The Best of Q-Tip. Instead of piecing together original songs that exemplify Q-Tip's emcee prowess during and after his days with A Tribe Called Quest, J. Period's mix blends remakes of Q-Tip and Tribe songs performed by other artists. De La Soul does a remix of "Excursions" and Blu handles a remix of "Jazz (We Got)", but the moment that'll have you emailing your friends with a link to this mixtape is the remix of "Youthful Expression". On that track, Talib Kweli goes into an absolute zone over Questlove's live percussion. Who knows where it would rank on a year-end list of "hot verses", but Kweli set a high standard with this one.
So why aren't there more covers and remakes? Simply put, covers and remakes, by definition, aren't "original" and that fact is a liability in a genre of hit makers who pride themselves on "keepin' it real". Despite the borrowing and sampling in hip-hop tunes, there's a general consensus among hip-hop heads that you (the emcee) should be writing your own verses. Ghostwriting does happen (what, you thought Diddywrote those rhymes?), but hip-hoppers expect it to be the exception, not the rule. In all of my above-cited covers and remakes, you'll notice how the new versions either (1) customize the original lyrics to fit the new rapper's character and environment, or (2) add new lyrics to the original. It's rare that a "new" version of a rap song will simply repeat the original lyrics verbatim.
Here's the bottom line: nobody really wants to hear a Cyrano de Bergerac routine, wherein someone like Rakim or KRS-One is the true author but the words are coming out of another rapper's mouth. Sometimes, if enough time has elapsed, we don't even want to hear the original rapper doing his or her own song, let alone another person. In addition to "keepin' it real", rappers tend to develop a distinct ethos through their albums and across their discographies. Their rhymes, opinions, and adventures give the audience a sense of knowing, the feeling that we understand the rapper's world when we listen to the music. That connection is broken when a song is redone by a different vocalist. It's out of context.
What's next? An album of hip-hop remakes? That's okay for pure tribute compilations, like a collection of artists redoing songs by N.W.A. or rap songs being reworked into different genres, but it won't do for standalone rap projects. Or worse, we'll be watching Paula, Randy, Simon, and Fourth Judge (Kara) critique an Idol contestant's audition of LL Cool J's "I Need Love". Randy would say, "What? Yo, dawg, yo, that was just all right for me." Paula would say, "I liked it. And you look great tonight." Kara would say, "Ooooh, I'm sorry. You're not quite right for this, but I still think you're relevant." And Simon would say, "I don't mean this rudely, but LL Cool J's mama should knock you out."" -PopMatters
Liner Note Authors: Jay-Z; Elliott Wilson.
Photographers: Clay Patrick McBride; Lenny Santiago; Arthur Elgort; Albert Watson ; Anthony Mandler; Jonathan Mannion.
Heavy on the singles from his Blueprint series and The Black Album, The Hits Collection, Vol. 1 covers Jay-Z's most popular material from 1996 through 2009, including the Top Ten hits "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Run This Town," "'03 Bonnie and Clyde," and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)."
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