To twist a line from The Usual Suspects: Jay-Z's biggest trick was convincing the world he didn't exist. Pretty high degree of difficulty for someone who's got more names than God--including some (J-Hova and its many variants) that pretty much are names of God--and more fans than Christianity. (Hey, if you're gonna talk about Jay-Z, you have to think as big as he does.) But that's exactly what he did earlier this year: His ill-fated collab with R. Kelly, the ambitiously (of course) titled The Best of Both Worlds, came and went so quickly, it was almost a rumor. No videos on MTV, no singles at radio, not even a photo of the duo on the cover. It doesn't even appear on Jay-Z's All Music Guide discography. Like it never happened.
It probably shouldn't have. The Best of Both Worlds hit stores at the worst possible time, thanks to rumors of Kelly's proclivity for underage girls turning into a 21-count indictment. The real dirty secret? Everyone was so quick to blame Kelly's legal trouble for the disc's subpar sales that they let Jay-Z off the hook for delivering decidedly not-off-the-hook rhymes. Had to happen sooner or later: After firing so many shots so quickly--The Best of Both Worlds was his eighth album in six years, and third in six months--Jay-Z was bound to hit an empty chamber eventually. Listen to it a few more times, and it gets slightly better; the gun's not completely empty, maybe, but the aim is definitely off. Fact is, it probably sounds worse than it actually is, since it came so close on the heels of his best and most personal album yet, The Blueprint. Very few hip-hop acts are able to keep one foot in the underground and the other in the mainstream (see: every Nas album between Illmatic and Stillmatic), and none does it as good as Jay-Z did it on The Blueprint.
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For once--or at least, the first time in a long while--he has only himself to thank. The Blueprint was all about Jay-Z, figuratively and literally: Unlike his previous efforts, which had guest lists longer than most of the parties in the Hamptons he frequents, The Blueprint recalls his debut, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, when all he had was himself. (Eminem turns up near the end, dropping a couple of verses on the song he produced, "Renegade.") Lyrically, it's a return to hip-hop as black punk rock. He says all the things he's always wanted to say in case he didn't get another chance. Jay even gives a shout-out to his credit rating. Twice. Backed into a corner by an assault charge, he settles scores with fellow rappers Nas and Mobb Deep ("Takeover"), NYC's district attorney ("Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"), the media ("I only talk about jewels?/Do you even listen to music?/Or do you just skim through it?" he asks on "Renegade") and just about everyone else ("Never Change" and "Heart of the City"). But he hides his bricks in cotton candy, wrapping his anger in radio-friendly hooks and call-and-response choruses, letting others do most of the moaning for him (as he does on "Song Cry"). Though Jay-Z claims he never gets too caught up in the drama--he says on "Never Change," "I'm not looking at you dudes/I'm looking past you"--given what happens when he does, you hope that's not true.