For better or worse, America sounds like this today. This is the definitive, overridingly dominant sound of US streets-to-charts right now, summing up its era as succinctly as, I dunno, the Artful Dodger or somesuch do here. If it repeats itself and seems unspeakably pleased with itself, that's a sign of where its cultural background is right now, and nothing can stop it.
Make no mistake: it's nowhere near as good as Life and Times of S. Carter. The funk could be tight (DJ Premier's "So Ghetto") or awesomely futuristic (Timbaland's mindblowing segue of "Big Pimpin'" and "Is That Yo Bitch", which sounded contrived and rushed-into-action in the most positive sense imaginable). Whatever, it seemed to hang together remarkably well if you ignored the typically insensitive and inappropriate tacking on of the awful "Anything". Even when it was at its peak I could hate it for its nihilism, but I couldn't hold back its conceptual brilliance. Capitalism at its most inexorably effective.
Nothing here is that good. Everything sweats where "Is That Yo Bitch" swivelled and swirved; everything gloats while "Come And Get Me" celebrated. Much is good, little is bad, nothing is great. "Intro" is tedious; arrogant self-promotion going one step too far. "Change The Game" is the first good track; chunky without being retro, and the single "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)" retains its freshness, sounding like mid-80s pop-funk if it had been tight and street-based. But when we get onto "Streets Is Talking" and the Snoop Dogg collaboration "Get Your Mind Right Mami", boredom begins to set in: haven't we heard this before?
Things like the Scarface collaboration "This Can't Be Life" get me thinking: alright, we know the shit you've been going through, we know money doesn't make you happy, ad nauseam, but really, you're rolling in it. As effective as the crying soul vocal sample is, I'd rather have another ultra-modernist celebration of wealth than this classicist imaginary moan.
"Stick 2 The Script" - basically a vague, ill-defined attack on those in hip-hop who can't work out exactly what their territory is - is probably the best thing here, an awesome production that burns slowly but never bores. But then we're into the likes of "You, Me, Him and Her" and "Guilty Until Proven Innocent", mid-album filler that might easily send me to sleep, the kind of thing that Westwood might play and you'd be utterly underwhelmed. "Parking Lot Pimpin'" is a real nadir, utterly formulaic, its title a cynical echo of Timbaland's excoriating masterpiece on S. Carter. "Holla" is a tedious chant, "1-900 Hustler" is a hamfisted grasp at brassy 70s soul, and "The R.O.C." is just the quintessence of mundanity. You begin to realise just how flukish S. Carter - the album - may well have been; as though all the best producers, the best techniques, the best lyrics and the best self-belief came together once and once only. Might Jay-Z be condemned to make, by comparison, boring and uninteresting mainstream hip-hop albums for the rest of his career?
It begins to redeem itself with the melancholic "Soon You'll Understand", a welcome antidote to the unrelenting self-promotion we've just been sitting through. The fairly inconsequential but tight, methodical "Squeeze 1st" at least has more quirks and bounces and leaps in its production than almost anything else here. At the extended fade out of "Where Have You Been" - a reflective, unobtrusive semi-autobiography which has me wondering exactly what would happen if Jay-Z took his further and went in a new (gasp!) self-questioning, self-critical, introspective direction - you're forgiving Roc La Familia its earlier sins of predictability and off-the-shelf production, and concluding that this is a fairly good mainstream hip-hop album, though not a great one.
Ultimately, though, it's the sound of this era. Jay-Z's endless repetitions and inexorable self-aggrandisement - his establishment of a personal, internalised ego trip extended into an entire musical project - tell you more about the tone of these times than any reclusive, private indie-rock ever can. He's only as good as his producers, of course, and when that falls down he's merely his own undistinguished advert. It's an uncannily addictive one, though ...
Robin Carmody, 10th December 2000