Jay-Z gives himself an unexpected artistic makeover on the loose Unplugged, which was recorded live in November for an MTV special. Abandoning his usual sample-based production to mix it up with the fiery Roots rhythm section and a string quartet that provides more than just window dressing, he expands his familiar anthems with extemporaneous freestyle forays and smart instrumental interludes. If The Blueprint and previous studio recordings are carefully scripted affairs built on pop song forms, Unplugged celebrates the possibilities of off-the-cuff interplay: The Roots sound like they've been backing Jay-Z for years - they push him to new heights just by working that minimal, relentlessly funky backbeat, supplying sparky little counterlines in the margins. The rapper responds by syncopating and scatting, launching slightly rejiggered choruses on "Takeover" and the tongue-twisting "Jigga What, Jigga Who." Everything clicks, but there are several moments of pure delirium: "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," which is enlivened by a spine-tingling gospel ad-lib from Philly newcomer Jaguar Wright, and "Can't Knock the Hustle/Family Affair," which turns on an incandescent Mary J. Blige performance.

(RS 888 - January 31, 2001)



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