Considered one of the best lyricists to emerge in the wake of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac's deaths, Jay-Z has since carried the flag of hip-hop narrative skill. His Roc-A-Fella family had already created a solid reputation based on Jay-Z's 1997 debut. As his fame has grown, so has his tendency to bring more R&B production elements into his work, creating a club-friendly, danceable version of east coast gangsta hip-hop that hasn't diminished his reputation as a preeminent force in rap. Perhaps even more importantly, Jay-Z has become a powerful musica impresario. In his role as president/CEO of Def Jam in the early 2000s, he fostered the careers of popular R&B singers Rihanna and Ne-Yo, and enjoyed a high profile as a co-owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. His long relationship and eventual marriage to superstar Beyonce has further endeared him to fans.
Only an artist of Jay-Z's stature could have survived the indignity of In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, his stunningly poor second LP, and remain standing as one of the premier lyricists of his generation. Like Biggie did on Life After Death, Jay-Z diversifies his style here--with the Timbaland-laced "Nigga What, Nigga Who" and the dialogue "Coming of Age" (which revisits the young hustler from Jay-Z's first LP, Reasonable Doubt)--demonstrating that even when experimenting with flow, he can still crush his peers. Though the album falters notably at the end (the lazy funk of "Paper Chase," "Reservoir Dogs," and "It's Like That" could be safely cut without incident), Shawn Carter has nonetheless reclaimed his mantle as rap's leading don. --Jon Caramanica
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