For at least two reasons, it was initially difficult to salivate over the prospect of Jay-Z’s Unplugged, the latest addition to the collection of albums plucked from MTV’s performance series. First, Jay-Z’s disappointing last album, ”The Blueprint,” is only a few months old, so it’s debatable whether anyone but the hardcore needs another record so soon. Then there’s the ”unplugged” format itself, an early-’90s vogue that, like Courtney Love’s babydoll outfit, played itself out long ago. So when Jay-Z opens ”Unplugged” by welcoming the audience and schmoozily announcing ”it’s a beautiful thing” even before the music’s started, the skepticism meter swings wildly to the right.
But yo and behold, it is a beautiful thing. The backup singers start chanting the chorus of ”Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”; Jay-Z wraps up his introduction with a simple, declarative ”let’s rock”; and the Roots, his backup band for the evening, launch into a kinetic arrangement of steamy organ, piping flute, and thwacking percussion. The lazy sample of the Jackson 5’s ”I Want You Back” on the original recording is gone, replaced by luxurious strings, and ”Izzo” practically leaps out of the speakers.
Despite successful ”Unplugged” installments like LL Cool J’s brilliant, pioneering performance a decade ago, the idea of mating rappers with musicians has always been a little suspicious. It seems to negate the idea on which hip-hop was born — that samples and recycled beats are as much a basis for legitimate music as that made with instruments. Jay-Z’s ”Unplugged” is cut from a different, more vibrant cloth: It adheres to, and respects, the original arrangements of his studio recordings, but it also builds on them and adds a new, unheard element to his sometimes deadening music: celebration.
The Roots, whose live-instrument hip-hop has moved me more in theory than in practice, deserve a chunk of the credit. Here, working like a blaxploitation-movie orchestra, they shine. Woodwinds and percussion on ”Big Pimpin”’ emulate the original’s crazy sample quilt, just as their battery of drums replicates the staccato of ”Jigga What, Jigga Who.” They replace the synths and dark beats of ”The Takeover,” Jay-Z’s swipe at Nas, with vampy violins and piano that add new drama. (”Don’t be the next contestant on the ”Unplugged” screen,” Jay-Z ad-libs to Nas.) On the once monotonous ”Girls, Girls, Girls,” the strings swoop in just as his female partner asks Jay-Z why he doesn’t buy her Reeboks anymore, adding something approaching poignancy. (And yes, I realize how absurd that last sentence sounds.)
For his part, Jay-Z comes alive too. On the telecast itself, he’s leaden and stone-faced, but just like Snoop in his prime, he has undeniable magnetism, and he has the glare of an inner-city action hero. He turns in an impassioned reading of ”Soul Cry,” ”Unplugged”’s emotional tour de force. Other times, he’s a one-man rap Rat Packer: asking the audience ”Where’s the love, y’all,” rhyming with casual confidence, and inviting Mary J. Blige, the Shirley MacLaine of this set, to duet on ”Can’t Knock the Hustle.” On the album cover, the title looks like ”Un Plugged,” which could be a dig at Un Rivera, the victim of an alleged Jay-Z knife attack in 1999 for which the rapper pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to probation. (How Frank is that?) Elsewhere, he’s aided and abetted by singer Jaguar Wright, who belts out the Bobby ”Blue” Bland sample in the marvelous symphonic soul of ”Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” and the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, who adds a graffitied falsetto to ”I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).”
One of the show’s most unintentionally amusing moments is the sight of Jay-Z wearing a fashionable Che Guevara T-shirt; one wonders what that ’60s revolutionary would have made of Jay-Z’s capitalist mini-empire of record label and clothing line. (The rapper’s gun talk probably would have gone over well, though.) Released just before Christmas, just in time for the rap aficionado on your gift list, ”Unplugged” is yet another manifestation of Jay-Z’s entrepreneurial side. But unwittingly or not, this acoustic performance is genuinely electric.