Best-known--and reviled, by many hardcore headz--as the man who set a rap to a tune from Annie
, that notorious tale of life in the 'hood ("Hard Knock Life"), Jay-Z clearly decided some time ago that amassing the Benjamins came before keeping it real, in the greater scheme of things. Still, even his harshest critics might be somewhat placated by the re-issue of this, his first album, which sees a tougher, more worldly MC than on anything that followed it. The late Notorious B.I.G.
guests on "Brooklyn's Finest"--a torrent of lazy, boastful braggadocio--while Foxy Brown
, feisty as ever, lends her distinctive presence to "Ain't No Nigga". And while his sleepy, monotonal vocal style will never place him within the first rank of MCs, his eye for detail is often surprisingly acute, lending many of these vignettes a chilling verisimilitude. --Andrew McGuire