A Review of Jay-Z’s “Unplugged” Album

Album Title: “Unplugged”

Album Artist: Jay-Z

Label: Roc-a-Fella

Release Date: 12/18/01

A running debate amongst music aficionados is whether studio albums are better than live albums. In 1976, when Peter Frampton released “Frampton Comes Alive,” (the first commercially successful live album), he demonstrated the substantial demand for that kind of album. Since 1976, countless live albums have been released by a wide variety of artists. In 1989, MTV decided to capitalize on this trend by hosting “Unplugged” sessions, which featured popular artists of the time performing in intimate settings in front of small audiences.

In 2000, MTV hosted its 1st (and only) unplugged session featuring a hip-hop lyricist. The featured lyricist was none other than the legendary Jay-Z. Due to high receptiveness of the performance, by viewers, in 2001 Jay-Z’s “Unplugged” album was released for commercial sale.

“Unplugged” is quite different than most live albums. Typically, live albums consist of intense crowd screaming and cheering in between and during songs (which tends to take away from song quality). This album has practically none of that, with the exception of when Jay-Z specifically asks for crowd participation.

“Unplugged” contains songs from five of his albums: “The Blueprint,” “Vol.2 Hardknock Life,” “Vol 3. The Life & Times of S. Carter,” “Reasonable Doubt,” and “The Dynasty-Roc La Familia.” This release serves as a greatest hits album, performed live. Each song featured either charted in Billboard’s Top 200 or was Grammy nominated. As with all of his releases, there were guest features by prominent and up and coming artists (Mary J. Blige, Pharrell, and Jaguar Wright).

With live instrumentation backing him (provided by The Roots), each song was precisely replicated (musically) to sound like the studio versions of the tracks. The song lyrics on “Unplugged” remained largely unchanged (with the exception of explicit content being removed). There were, however, manifold changes in arrangements of the songs. For “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” the male vocalist, who appeared on the original track, was replaced by the female vocalist Jaguar Wright. Wright’s intense vocal riffs (accentuated by Jay-Z) created a more soulful and powerful sound than the original delivered. The song “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” featuring Mary J. Blige, was altered so that part of her single “Family Affair” was included in the performance. Select tracks (like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Ain’t No,” “Can I Get A,” and “ Jigga, Jigga,”) were vastly shortened, due to the original featured artists not participating in the MTV session.

One special thing about “Unplugged,” was after the last song “Jigga, Jigga” finished, a hidden studio track started to play. This track, called “People Talking” had been previously unreleased and is quite possibly one of Jay-Z’s greatest songs. Although it was added as a promotional track, for The Blueprint 2, it served as a great end to an amazing album. This album is perfect for a Jay-Z novice (looking to learn about his catalogue) or a hardcore fan.  It includes his greatest hits, special renditions of popular songs, and an exclusive track.