Jigga wows on 'Unplugged'

by Sam Lederer | 1/10/02 6:00am

On Nov. 18, 2001, MTV's "Unplugged" series aired yet another gem which ranks among classic performances by Nirvana, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.

But this performance came from a most unlikely artist and musical genre, Jay-Z, the king of hip-hop. After the success of his sixth studio album, "The Blueprint," Jay took a less conventional path to further his career with an album release of that performance.

Backed by the Roots and accompanied onstage at points by the wonderful Mary J. Blige, Jay rocks the house as only the undisputed champion of MCs can. The 13-track album is a sort of greatest-hits package with classics such as "Big Pimpin'" and "Izzo" appearing alongside lesser-known tunes such as "Song Cry."

An inspired performance of "H.O.V.A. (H to the Izzo)" begins the release after Jay declares to the screaming audience, "Welcome to Jay-Z's poetry reading." And poetry it is, set to the beats of Amir "Quest Love" Thompson on drums.

With the addition of a violin and background vocals, the song is given a softer, more emotional flavor that adds to Jay's flawless delivery of the song's biographical material.

Jay rekindles his long-documented feud with Nas on "Takeover." After this summer's war of words between the two rappers, Nas' "Stillmatic" appeared in stores on the same day as "Unplugged." Jay proclaims himself the leader of the hip-hop nation: "When I was pushing weight back in '88, you was still a ballerina." Sampling the Doors' "5 to 1," the track is given an eerie and ominous element by the presence of a flute and funky bass lines.

Jay then follows with two more hits, "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Jigga What, Jigga Who."

Never forsaking his fans, he brings in the audience to help him on "Jigga." The backup vocals from the Roots' Jaguar Wright on both tracks are outstanding and add an element of coherence to the otherwise frenzied tunes.

Jay's skill as a singer is demonstrated as he spits out countless rhymes on "Girls."

"Big Pimpin'" serves as the best example of what an "Unplugged" performance can do to a song. The flute lines enhance the exotic and classy tone of the otherwise flat studio hit.

The guitar work is no less noteworthy, complimenting Jay-Z very well.

Being humble once again, Jay does not fail to thank the Roots and MTV for giving him the opportunity to display his talents in a fresh and exciting forum.

The emotional tune "Heart of the City" ranks as one of the best cuts on the album. Wright's background vocals essentially steal the show from Jay. But this is done in attempt to increase the soul power and emotional aspect of the tune about the rough-and-tumble ghetto life. The cool bass lines, in addition, help to heighten the effects of Jay's lyrics.

"Can I Get A " offers yet another inspired performance by the man born as Shawn Carter. The electric piano adds a techno feel to the song in which it seems that Jay is actually feeding off the audience's excitement.

"Can't Knock the Hustle," a duet with Blige, is easily the album's best song. Blige's beautiful voice creates a harmony between the two stars. The cool piano work only compliments the two's vocals and makes this track one of the best performances in "Unplugged" history. Jay is not short on gratitude saying, "I am fortunate to be blessed by the presence of the queen. Her name is Mary J. Blige."

"Song Cry" displays a softer and more emotional side of the MC while also preserving his tough image. He proclaims, "I can't see it coming down my eyes, so I have to make the song cry." Recounting his pain after being hurt by a woman, Jay pours everything he has into the song, whose message is reinforced by Wright's vocals.

A well-rounded performance of "I Just Wanna Love U" closes out the performance. The use of maracas and intelligent brushwork on the drums allows Jay to play off of and compliment the Roots.

Jay-Z's prowess as a lyricist and MC was obvious from the start of his career with the release of "Reasonable Doubt." But his performance in MTV's Times Square studios showed another side of the rapper that many fans had never seen before.