It was Jay-Z who ended up gifting us for his 50th birthday. The legend of Marcy decided to put his entire studio album discography back on Spotify after a two-year absence. While Jay-Z has allowed Apple Music users to stream a majority of his catalog — excluding the Blueprint series and his debut masterwork, Reasonable Doubt — Spotify listeners were pretty much left with scraps: namely, his unfortunate Best of Both Worlds collaborationds with R. Kelly and Collision Course with Linkin Park.
The businessman that he is, Jay-Z only allowed full access to his catalog to subscribers of the streaming service he owns. But right after midnight on Dec. 4, Spotify users could log on and see Reasonable Doubt, Jay’s most jealously guarded album, staring back at them.
The re-introduction of Hov’s has reignited debates over the ranking of Jay-Z’s discography, which album is his most underrated, and if much-maligned ’97 sophomore LP Vol. 1 was really that bad. While understandable, there’s also always been an excuse to have these sorts of debates, whether it’s a birthday, an album’s 12th anniversary, or if Hov himself offered a ranking of his own work. But even Jay-Z’s own listing, like most others, didn’t include the non-studio album projects. What about that time he linked up with the Roots? Or that other time he toured seven cities in a day when he just came out of retirement?
With respect to The S. Carter Collection — which is still on DatPiff — take a look at the projects outside the big 13 that’s landed on Spotify below.
Exempting “99 Problems,” a majority of JAY-Z’s dalliances with rock are underlined by awkwardness, whether from silly public perception (Is it that surprising he likes Grizzly Bear?) or his own clumsiness (an R.E.M. interpolation from Murmur might’ve been more interesting). The obvious example is Collision Course, a mash-up mini-album that saw an artist leaving the game on top teaming up with a nu-metal group already starting to near the end of their prime. Its main issue here is just as obvious: Most of the songs are already near-perfect on their own; “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” does not sound better with “In the End” or vice versa.
But Collision Course objectively worked on a commercial level. The set topped the Billboard 200, and while hip-hop purists wept to “Encore,” it was “Numb/Encore” that dominated MTV video blocks. And at the very least, Collision Course aged far better than Jay-Z’s other big name team-up.
As the story goes, Jay-Z’s longtime engineer Young Guru talked Hov into doing a double album because the format was the linchpin to 2Pac and Biggie’s legacies. If Jay wanted to be held in the same regard, the logic said he needed that overlong masterwork in his discography. Years later, Young Guru would refer to what became The Blueprint 2 as a “mistake.”
If the sequel’s fatal flaw was its bloat, 2.1 — a condensed version with new bonus cuts — should’ve been the obvious corrective. But cutting fat can only do so much with an album that was mainly fat. The re-release couldn’t do much to salvage the pandering Biggie references and the haphazard rock fusions. Even more tragically, The Blueprint 2’s misses do overshadow some of the finest work of Jay-Z’s career; the father-son tragedy of “Meet the Parents” should never be as much of a deep cut as it is.
The bonus tracks have gems, too: Anti-war, “black Brad Pitt” meets bhangra on the remix to Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys,” and atop the Neptunes’ doomsday bounce on “La-La-La (Excuse Me Miss Again),” Jay-Z defiantly references the stabbing of Lance “Un” Rivera (“I’ll never make the news again, my man’ll shoot ya”) and makes a rude threat at then-Suns star Stephon Marbury’s expense.
The optics of a proudly alternative band like the Roots collaborating with a shiny suit-era survivor like Jay-Z was already weird without it happening in 2001, when Hov was knee-deep in feuds. His battle for New York supremacy against Nas required him to be egotistical and cocksure. Instead of a soldier, Questlove found in his collaborator a mensch who was a Simpsons fan. That warmth swings throughout Jay and the Roots’ Unplugged performance, where the even Hov’s coldest records puff with effervescence. Jay’s unforced personability — he jokingly calls out audience members for singing the “Hard Knock Life” hook at the wrong cue — ties the set together.
It’s back to war at the end of the album, though. Unplugged’s bonus cut is the weary “People Talkin,” a creeping coda filled with Jay-Z’s most vivid threats. Before he was staring 50 and extolling the virtues of being vulnerable, “Breathing’s a privilege” came with a palpable chill.
American Gangster and The Black Album a cappella
There were no surprise, Shai-esque hits in these collections, but it’s not hard to find at least one reason to experience Jay-Z a capella. Maybe it’s better for some that way, given how dated a sliver of The Black Album sounds, and how charismatic Jay’s voice is on its own. A bare behind-the-scenes look at a complete Jay-Z project also carry its own charm — check how that haunted reverb rolls in at the end of “December 4th.”
Of course, the most infamous consequence to come from the a cappella tracks was Danger Mouse’s much-hyped The Grey Album, a mash-up of the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 set (familiarly known as The White Album) and Jay’z Black Album. Although the project earned praises from Jay-Z, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr, the Beatles’ copyright holder order sellers to cease distribution. So, that one isn’t on streaming service, but the “Lucifer”/”Revolution 9” mix is worth the deep search.
Live From the Hangar Tour
Kingdom Come was the sound of a titan shaking off his rust. Naturally, a live album from the era carries the same shortcoming. Recorded from a one-day, seven-city concert run the weekend before Kingdom Come’s release, Live From the Hangar Tour finds Hov cycling through the essentials, the title track, and washed-life anthem “30 Something.” His crowd’s excitement quakes through the recordings, and Jay-Z’s truncated set has a fraction of the fluidity of Unplugged. It doesn’t help that Spotify only offers the censored version, which makes “Jigga My N—a” a particularly frustrating listen. The essential Kingdom Come-era live joint, “44 Fours,” isn’t even included here.