Jay-Z ‘Unplugged’ Album: Hip-Hop Experts Revisit Each Song
Ten years ago today (Dec. 18), Jay-Z changed the face of hip-hop. Wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, flanked by the legendary Roots crew in an MTV studio, the Brooklyn native went through 13 of his hits for the ‘MTV Unplugged’ series, filmed a month prior to the release of the ‘Jay-Z: Unplugged’ album. There are a few points to note about the importance of the LP, which showcased the tracks as he spit them for the TV special. It wasn’t the acoustic factor; hip-hop artists like LL Cool J did that before. However, prior to that moment, Jay-Z was known as one “type” of hip-hop, while the Roots were in a separate category.
Their worlds collided, and the result was beautiful. The collaboration proved favorable for both — Jay-Z earned the respect from certain naysayers who believed he was only as strong as his weakest drug reference while the Roots opened the eyes and ears of mainstream fans that didn’t know keys, drums and bass could hug rap so tightly. It was a win-win situation. In honor of this classic album from a decade ago, The BoomBox travels track-by-track with experts from the hip-hop community — Bonz Malone, Chuck Creekmur, Kazeem Famuyide, Kris Ex and Low Key — to dissect its genius. Welcome to the 8th Wonder of the world, one that’s a timeless listen.
1. ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’
“The opening moments of this opening track may well be the closest the vast majority of us will ever come to seeing a discomfited Jay-Z. He had unsheathed his sword and pointed it in Nas‘ direction months before with ‘Takeover’ and was undoubtedly awaiting a response, but here he was, doing a special live performance for MTV backed by The Roots. As games of thrones go, this was a flanking maneuver: Nas was injured but not destroyed, which left Jay-Z in an absurd position. To lay another attack after ‘Takeover’ would be unseemly; to engage fully in the cultural moment that is ‘Unplugged’ would have meant letting his guard down. The whole thing was tailored to expand on his legacy, not to lay siege to an opponent’s career — that’s what Summer Jam is for.
So there he was, wearing a Che Guevara shirt with bling on, uneasily announcing his arrival: “Welcome to Jay-Z’s poetry reading…Art, who goes there?…It was the winter. It was cold. It was the cold winter…” It was a self-effacing icebreaker for a man who rarely broke out of Iceberg Slim mode. For their part, The Roots chose to re-interpret Kanye West‘s Jackson 5 sample as an original piece of music, loosening the strings into one full movement that bared little semblance to a loop, while Jaguar Wright transformed the hook’s background vocals from an afterthought into a modern lullaby. By the time Jay was “overcharging labels for what they did to the Cold Crush,” his swag was back, his voice full of that slightly nasal bombast that’s at once warm yet cold and disdainful but charitable. And it only took him about three minutes.” — Kris Ex, Hip-hop writer and author
“I loved what The Roots brought to ‘Takeover.’ One of the smoothest takes on a diss record. I’d love to see the imminent reaction to a record like this in today’s social media era. You’ve got to remember ‘Takeover’ was still a relatively new record when they performed this on ‘Unplugged.’ Then The Roots switched the beat up to play ‘Oochie Wally’ and ‘Quiet Storm,’ to put that extra sting in each diss to Nas and Mobb Deep. Just real smooth, fly s—.” — Kazeem Famuyide, Editor of The Source
3. ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’
“In some aspects, The Roots gave the track some life. Not that the studio version was lacking anything, but the drums were tougher, the individual instruments were more distinctive. And being how the backdrop of the studio version was mainly a sample, it was beautiful to hear those individual sounds played out. Not to mention Jaguar Wright replacing the vocal sample was flawless.” — Low Key, Owner and blogger of YouHeardThatNew.com
4. ‘Jigga What, Jigga Who’
“We operating at six now, we gotta get it all the way to 10, but we gonna get there,” said Jay as a cold start to this track. “In order to get there, I know what I gotta do.” What he had to do was kick that ignorant ish that we like. Yeah, he had run through the eviscerating diss ‘Takeover’ and the misogyny as art number ‘Girls, Girls, Girls,’ but this is where he began to take flight. “I got a condo with nothing but condoms in it/ The same place where the rhymes invented/ So all I do is rap and sex,” he spat in double-time while The Roots turned Timbaland‘s computer-loving, spacey beat into a stripped-down groove of melting keys and half-sounds that milked the source material for every moment of counterpoint possible.” — K.E.
5. ‘Big Pimpin”
“As far as ‘Big Pimpin” goes, in a weird way, I always remember Jaguar Wright — the backup singer for The Roots — bouncing feverishly in her seat as the beat switched up and Questlove started killing those drums. I’ll never forget the first time I heard this record because I remember watching it on MTV and it being ridiculously cold out, and when you hear certain records like that, you immediately think of the video. You immediately think of that warm weather and that tropical feel. And for at least a couple of minutes, it’s pretty warm. In my imagination anyway.” — K.F.
6. ‘Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)’
“This version hit hard. The thing that makes this album so incredible and special is the fact that it’s live instruments. That s— is always gonna be the dopest thing out. Everything starts with the beat, and the lyrics follow. The Roots knew how to work this joint. These are real musicians to the heart. [Jay-Z] picked the realest muthaf—ers out. The Roots and Jay-Z coming together anchored hip-hop. Those who are Jay-Z fans, they’re always gonna be Jay-Z fans. His lyrics are ridiculous; his talent is unquestionable. Here, he’s surrounded by a live foundation that amplified Jay’s talent. His talent is above the bar, and their talent is above the bar.” — Bonz Malone, Hip-hop writer and author
7. ‘Can I Get A…’
“This record here is where The Roots’ influence on this performance-CD really stood out, and why they are still the greatest house band in the world. They took a record like ‘Can I Get A…’ and made it sound just as good, if not better, than the original recording. This is something that they do on a daily occasion now [on ‘Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’]. The collection of The Roots including Jay-Z makes this pairing and performance the stuff of legends. Jigga setting another trend with the big Che Guevera T-shirt that became really in style after this, as well.” — K.F.
8. ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’
“This song was Jay’s crossover moment, and it’s based on a Broadway sample flipped into a bass-first number by the 45 King that melded the sinister with the innocent. That has to be mentioned because the version here discards most of that history. Instead of milking
the moment, Jay and The Roots play in the key of jolly and only go for a minute-and-a-
half. It’s astute rendition and a smart move: it would have been damned hard to best to
original on its own merits and this version would have been too sappy played full out.
Also: Those who knew Jay-Z mostly as “the guy who sampled that Annie song,” would
have felt shorted if this one wasn’t in the track listing. So here it was, all treats and tricks,
kisses and kicks. After all, “We must not let outsiders violate our blocks/ And my plot
is to stick up the world and split it 50/50.” Mission accomplished.” — K.E.
9. ‘Ain’t No N—-‘
“The simplicity of the beat itself gives The Roots a little more room to have fun with it. Kick, snare and a groovy baseline. I don’t think The Roots really added to the song, but they definitely made that particular track sound fun as hell. Not to mention it’s one of Jay’s classic cuts from his catalog so people are going to naturally have fun with it, whether it’s live or not. Jay-Z cosigning The Roots on such a massive platform like that spoke hugely to the hip-hop community. To be fair, The Roots were already a huge pillar in the game to begin with, but for Jay to instill that much trust in them during a major event like that on such a mainstream level was dope as hell.” — L.K.
10. ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’
“‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’ was beautiful because when you’re watching it, you’re looking at Jay, Mary [J. Blige], and The Roots. You really can’t knock the hustle. That s— is subliminal, but at the same time it’s in your f—in’ face. You can’t knock any of them from where they came from, and what they’ve been through.” — B.M.
11. ‘Song Cry’
“With ‘Song Cry,’ you have to be in the frame of mind to even listen to it. Personally, coming from Bonz Malone, you’ve got to be depressed to listen to some s— like that. That’s not one of my main hits in Jay-Z’s catalog. Fuck that s—. I don’t wanna think about my mother or what happened in the past. But when you’ve got The Roots behind it, it goes down easier. Even though it’s an adept song, with the musical notes behind it, what they’re doing underneath it, it compliments the song. It makes those lyrics go down better.” — B.M.
12. ‘I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)’
“The live band and hip-hop are always an interesting pair. Because of the nature of the records, generally samples and big bass, having a band can drastically alter the original sound. But on ‘I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),’ The Roots back up Jay-Z to perfection. In fact, they emulate the original to a T with additional energy from the band. On top of that, they mixed in a bit of that Carl Thomas song ‘I Wish I Never Met Her.’ There’s so much going on that brings wealth to this song all the way down to a vocal DJ scratching with this mouth. Great.” — Chuck Creekmur, CEO of AllHipHop.com
13. ‘Jigga That N—-‘
“I think they closed with this song because it was one of the most festive songs on the album. ‘Jigga That N—-‘ is one big party. Jaguar Wright has a big booming voice, but she was forced to play the back on this one. She was more impactful on ‘Song Cry.’ The Roots do it again though. They kept the original and added to it — fans reciting the song word for word.” — C.C.
Watch ‘The Tanning Effect – Jay-Z (Part One)’