[1 March 2011]
When Jay-Z was tapped in 2008 to headline England’s Glastonbury festival, the rapper’s booking drew a slew of criticism from rock-centric festival-goers and a few British musicians, including Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, who said, “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury – it’s wrong.” The Brooklyn MC took the condemnation surprisingly calmly, waiting until the actual festival to retort. At the beginning of his set, Jay-Z incited a mocking sing-along to Oasis’s hit “Wonderwall” before transitioning into his playa-hater brush-off anthem “99 Problems”. And by the time Jay-Z reached the encore of his 27-song set, he ostensibly converted more than a few naysayers via his performance of select cuts from one of the most impressive catalogs in the hip-hop canon.
As such, perhaps no other living rapper was as deserving of a greatest hits compilation than Jay-Z, and he finally has an official one with the release of The Hit Collection Volume One. Curiously, though, this 14-song collection doesn’t contain any tracks from his classic 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, and his best album, The Blueprint, gets only one showing with “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”. The earliest recorded song on the project is “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” from his third album, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life. His subsequent LP, the soundly constructed and coherent release Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, gets the shaft as well, merely represented by “Big Pimpin’”, and The Dynasty also gets only one track with “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”. Thankfully, the bland Blueprint 2 serves up just a single cut, the lackluster “Bonnie & Clyde”, while the solid The Black Album gets the most nods with four (“99 Problems”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, “Public Services Announcement”, and ‘Encore”. His post-retirement output surprisingly makes a strong showing, with “Show Me What You Got” from Kingdom Come, “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)...” from American Gangster and three tracks from 2009’s Blueprint 3 (“D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”, “Run This Town” and “Empire State of Mind”).
As a result of these uneven selections, it’s hard to not feel conflicted about the album. Understandably, longtime fans will balk at the myriad amount of exclusions (no “Dead Presidents”, “Can I Get A…”, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, “Takeover”, to name a few). Indeed, the mix seems to be put together by a newbie Jay-Z fan – though allegedly Jigga personally selected the track listing. But as the title implies, this is an attempt to showcase the “hits” (i.e., records that are hook-heavy chart-toppers that punctured the larger pop culture) rather than his best songs.
However, things do dig deeper on a second disc for the Hits Collection’s deluxe edition, which contains five hard-to-find tracks. The first two songs — which were first released on the S. Carter Collection Mixtape — find Jay-Z rhyming over the Marley Marl-produced beat for Big Daddy Kane’s “Young, Gifted and Black” along with the impressive attack on rapper Joe Budden called “Pump It Up (Freestyle)”. Next up are “My President Is Black (Remix)” and “Go Hard (Remix)”, which are both decent but ultimately forgettable. The nugget here is the closer “This Life Forever”, which was first found on the soundtrack for the scraped blaxploitation film Black Gangster.
But even with this nod to devotees, the Hits Collection could be tons stronger from an artistic standpoint, and anyone curious about Jay-Z who buys this without skimming his non-radio friendly cuts will be missing out on his best work. Ultimately, the Hits Collection won’t gain any true value until it receives a sequel that balances things out with a focus on his finest songs.