The Hits Collection, Vol. 1 by Jay-Z
In an era defined by the rampant theft and legal purchase -- but mostly rampant theft -- of digital music, the retrospective album has become something of a dying breed. Now that casual fans of a given band or artist, like Jay-Z for example, can selectively download individual songs of interest, the only remaining (useful) function of a Jay-Z "best of" album would be to initiate non-fans to his body of work by providing them with a easy, navigable distillation of it, either as selected by the artist himself (no chance of that happening) or his record label (warmer...) in the hopes that hearing it might impel them to explore his back catalog.
While this is all well and good in theory, the only way that record companies can really guarantee that a contemporary Greatest Hits album will shift units is to include several of an artist's most recent -- and, in some cases, least exemplary -- chart toppers, which, in Jay's case, is foolish for two reasons: 1) most of his contemporary hits would not have become hits had they not been released by a very high profile hip-hop artist who only became one by releasing vastly superior singles in the late '90s and early aughts; 2) it makes absolutely no sense to, for the purposes of gearing a Jay-Z singles retrospective towards a younger generation of fans, include in it his most recent singles, because said fans have clearly already heard them.
Not only is The Hits Collection, Vol. 1's track selection weak -- not only as a result of the aforementioned constraint, but generally poor taste -- it's also a highly uneconomical release, clocking in at only 56 minutes. Compact discs have the capacity to store a little under 80 and, since this is the first volume -- suggesting the unpromising prospect of a second and maybe even a third -- and most of Jay-Z's music is owned by one publishing company, it is highly doubtful that its producers couldn't have tacked on to this album another 20 or so minutes of material, or that its paltriness of material is the result of anything but laziness and poor foresight, or maybe even a desire to stretch this out into four or five volumes, of which there is a distinct possibility.
Roughly 40 percent of the album's tracks were culled from Jay-Z's three post-retirement albums: Kingdom Come, American Gangster and The Blueprint 3. While the shambling, chaotic "Show Me What You Got" was, technically speaking, a hit, there's nothing particularly great about it; in fact, it's one of the few songs of his latter-day oeuvre that vaguely suggest that he may have lost the fire in his belly. The more recent "Empire State of Mind" and "Run This Town" are solid tracks, the former representing an commercial-cum-critical-if-not-artistic apex of a 22-year career, but some of the older hits have, unfortunately, withstood neither the test of time nor diminishing returns, and are exposed in this retrospective for the novelty songs they always were: "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," a silly artifact from Roc-A-Fella's campy late-'90s obsession with sampling Hollywood musicals, the overrated "99 Problems" and the immortally obnoxious "Big Pimpin'." Others were never that good to begin with: the interminable "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" (featuring unbearably tone-deaf singing by the man), the profoundly boring "Encore" and the early lesser Neptunes hit "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." The tragedy of The Hits Collection, Vol. 1 is that it will turn out to be many young listeners' (disappointing) introduction to Jay-Z's body of work -- though it actually makes a stronger case for him being an inessential artist who, far from being the second or third greatest rapper of all time, merely released a handful irritating pop-rap anthems played at sporting events.
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