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Jay-Z: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia

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With last year's disappointing Vol. 3: Life And Times Of S. Carter, Jay-Z seemed to be making a serious run at Nas' title as the biggest waste of talent in hip-hop. The genre's quintessential Rolex-flashing, Cristal-popping egotist, Jay-Z at his best has the rare ability to make arrogance seem not only forgivable, but downright attractive. But where Notorious B.I.G.'s flossing on "Juicy"—ground zero for hip-hop materialism—derived its power from its context as the reward for a life of struggle and toil, Jay-Z seemed to be rhyming about wealth because he had nothing else to say. But he finds his form on Roc La Familia, an album funny, funky, and infectious enough to give shamelessly materialistic pop-rap a good name. Designed as both a solo album and a showcase for the Roc-A-Fella roster (Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and a largely missing Amil), Dynasty finds him sharing serious mic time with Sigel and Bleek, to the benefit of everyone involved. Jay-Z improves the game of everyone around him, and Bleek and Sigel both rise to the challenge of rhyming alongside an immense talent. Whether baring his vulnerable side on "Where Have You Been" and "Soon You'll Understand" or getting his freak on alongside Bleek and Snoop Dogg (on "Get Your Mind Right Mami"), Jay-Z is in top form here, sounding both relaxed and hungrier than ever. The Neptunes-produced first single, "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," sticks religiously to the formula that made its "Shake Ya Ass" such a monster hit, with tight, minimalist production topped by gorgeous falsetto background vocals; the result is so catchy that its formulaic nature hardly matters. On "1-900-Hustler," Jay-Z showcases his flair for imbuing street-life narratives with cutting black humor, with Jay-Z, Sigel, Bleek, and impressive newcomer Freeway breaking down the game of hustling for a variety of clueless would-be players. With Vol. 3, Jay-Z's best days seemed behind him, but with Dynasty, he re-establishes himself as a force, a swaggering alpha-male with the talent to back up even his wildest boasts.