Alice In Chains: Unplugged

Alice In Chains: Unplugged

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Alice In Chains

Album: Unplugged
Label: Columbia
-

Alice In Chains

Album: Unplugged
Label: Columbia

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Following the murders of feuding megastars Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, hip-hop was inundated with idealistic rhetoric about stopping the violence and/or increasing the peace. But everyone loves a fight, and in the current Nas/Jay-Z feud, hip-hop has a rhetorical grudge match to rival such legendary battles as KRS-One vs. MC Shan or LL Cool J vs. Canibus. Jay-Z's new Unplugged begins with the prolific rapper dryly inviting listeners to his "poetry reading," but he soon shucks off the coffeehouse trappings and goes for the jugular with a spirited rendition of "Takeover," his stinging attack on Nas and Mobb Deep. Like every song on Unplugged, "Takeover" benefits immeasurably from Jay-Z's decision to use The Roots as his backing band. Undoubtedly the most exciting and accomplished live collective in hip-hop, the group is a natural choice to back up one of rap's biggest stars. But its participation also comes as a surprise, because Jay-Z had previously shown little interest in the progressive underground hip-hop scene that The Roots embodies. Then again, he's been moving toward a more organic, soulful sound since 2000's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and in that respect, the pairing sounds like a natural step in his evolution. Though consistently solid and bolstered by Jay-Z's formidable catalog, Unplugged is at its best when the rapper allows The Roots enough room to maneuver, as on a Mary J. Blige-assisted medley of "Can't Knock The Hustle" and "Family Affair." Too often, however, Jay-Z seems afraid of being upstaged by the group, particularly guest vocalist Jaguar. Given The Roots' reputation, the rapper's concerns are understandable, but hiring it as a backing band and then keeping it on a short leash is kind of like hiring Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, then forbidding guitar solos. Combining 13 live tracks with a bugged-out, studio-produced bonus track, Unplugged is the rare hip-hop album that can actually be accused of being too tight and short. But Jay-Z has always been a savvy businessman, and it's good business to leave the audience wanting more. Following the release of his revered but commercially under-performing debut Illmatic, Jay-Z's nemesis Nas has been a flashy star, but his multi-platinum sales have come at a heavy price. A longtime contender for hip-hop's biggest waste of talent, he hasn't been an artistic force since Bill Clinton's first term, and with every subsequent release, Nas seemed to be straying farther from the promising course suggested by his debut. Jay-Z's attacks have clearly made an impact on him, however, and on Stillmatic, he comes out blazing, matching lyrically complex crime narratives and treatises on 'hood life with stripped-down production from Illmatic veterans like DJ Premier and Large Professor. Of course, Stillmatic wouldn't be a proper Nas record if it didn't contain at least a few regrettable detours into bad taste, and the album boasts its share. The incongruously jiggy, Swizz Beats-produced "Braveheart Party" has been pulled from future pressings at the request of guest vocalist Blige, but it should never have been included in the first place. "Rule," meanwhile, boasts a compelling, socially conscious lyric, but is undermined by a hook that lazily borrows the chorus from Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." Those songs aside, however, Stillmatic is the return to Illmatic form its title none too subtly suggests.

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