Sach O is the one that got away.
“What I did with ‘[In My Lifetime] Volume One’ was I tried to make records. I had just made ‘Reasonable Doubt’ … it wasn’t successful in music industry terms. It was a cult classic on the streets, but it wasn’t successful in the music business and I tried to blend the two. If you look back on ‘In My Lifetime,’ there were songs on there that were brilliant. I don’t listen to that album because I think I messed it up. –
So says the mighty Shawn Carter and his word is the gospel. Jay-Z has repeatedly stated in interviews that he was unhappy with the follow up to his classic debut and he considers it “the one that got away.” Reinforced by the album’s relatively mixed reception, this rare admission of failure has ingrained itself as a received truth in rap lore, a speed bump on the way to an empire. But is it really that bad?
Anything that opens up with the brilliant 1-2 punch of “A Million and One Questions” can’t be a total failure. Perhaps the best example of Premo/Jay synergy, the track swings with the dusty but cocky swagger of Jay at his most relaxed as he answers the song’s titular questions while hinting that you don’t know half the story. Building on the lush-but-dust dichotomy of Reasonable Doubt with an increased emphasis on the lush, the album is full of these moments: Mafioso rap’s logical conclusion imbued with wise-guy humor, lounge room pianos and the jiggy era’s in the pocket funk. With beats supplied by Ski, The Trackmasters & The Hitmen, songs like “Imaginary Player”, “Who You With”, “Face Off” and “Real Niggaz” had Jay at his most callous and materialistic following Reasonable Doubt’s more conflicted and nuanced emotions. Interestingly, these dual charges of smooth commercialism and lyrical vapidity would come to haunt Jay for most of his early career despite only telling half the story.
The other half is Jay at his most haunted, paranoid and fatalistic. Recorded in the aftermath of best friend Biggie Smalls’ death, Volume 1 more than any other rap album of its era feels like a reaction to New York rap’s great calamity. Every moment of materialism on the album is contrasted with the threat of it all tumbling down in a flurry of bullets or arrest warrants with success ultimately portrayed as a hollow
victory at too great a cost. Where Reasonable Doubt featured a life’s worth of regrets and memories, Volume 1 is explicitly concerned with the present: it’s a whirlwind ride to the top where one wrong turn can land you in a coffin. “Streets is Watching” and “Where I’m from” condense Reasonable Doubt’s crack-era biographies, “Friend or Foe 98” sardonically embraces cold-blooded murder even as it mourns for Biggie and “Rap Game/Crack Game” lays bare the parallels between a life of crime and what seems like an equally dangerous career in the spotlight.
Then there’s the album’s twin peaks: “Lucky Me” is the glue that holds the record together: an opulent-sounding number as funky as anything the Hitmen have ever produced but imbued with enough much pain, heartache, regret, paranoia, confusion and depression to give any explicitly confessional rocker a run for his money. It’s the rarest of gems: a song about the perils of celebrity that feels justified, burying its pain beneath layers of synths and guitar riffs. Album ending “You Must Love Me” meanwhile stands as a trio of stories so naked, so personal, they’re almost painful to listen to. Here, the album’s every moment of doubt is laid explicitly as Shawn Carter self-flagellates for every wrong he’s done, desperately hoping karma won’t catch up to him in his flight from the streets. While backpackers praised Common’s tasteful “Stolen Moments” series and snubbed Roc-a-Fella’s perceived
commercialism, Jay laid down rhymes that would have any rap fan wondering why in the hell he’d want to rhyme like Common Sense. Call it Jay-Division.
As for the album’s most nakedly commercial moments…actually yeah, Jay’s mostly right about those stinking up the place. “I know What Girls Like” sounds like something left on Life after Death’s cutting room floor with Jay completely failing to fill Big’s shoes. The similarly forced “Sunshine” apes “Ain’t No Nigga” and tries to capture lightning in a bottle twice but misses the mark completely with an incongruous chorus and poorly used Fearless Four sample. For the listener, these tracks are easy skips but for an artist priding himself on the honest narratives seen above, they’re rather embarrassing grasps at straws: desperate attempts to recreate someone else’s magic that fail to fool anyone.
The one exception might be “The City is Mine”. On paper, it should be a pale imitation of Nas’ Escobar era singles, Teddy Riley’s beat coming dangerously close to “Street Dreams” a year too late. At the time of its release, it was easy to see why it failed to light the charts ablaze. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s eerily prophetic, foreshadowing Jay’s ascension to the top of New York and his meteoric rise to superstardom in a city desperately looking for answers after Biggie’s death. The song should be anthemic– instead Jay’s nearly apologetic in his claim to the throne, wary to claim a position that should belong to a dear friend. Plus, he’s anxious about a job that came with the-then very real possibility of a gruesome end with “holes in his frame”. For my money, it’s a better New York anthem than the now “ubiquitous Empire,” a song representing for life-long New Yorkers rising above the struggle rather than for wide-eyed outsiders gentrifying the neighborhood.
Maybe someone should tell Jay.