Jay-Z — “99 Problems”

Released: 4.27.04

Peak: #30

The mystic spirits may instruct him otherwise, but Rick Rubin was not put on earth to produce Tom Petty records. And though some of us might wish otherwise, Shawn Carter was not put on earth to rhyme about anything other than his own sweet, skilled self. “99 Problems” is less a creative collaboration than a joint formal exercise, in which both men demonstrate mastery over the musical elements they’ve recycled throughout their careers. In the process. Rubin and Jay both prove why they don’t need to do this shit anymore, and why they’re entitled to repeat themselves if they so chose.

Rubin seems to deliberately pluck originality out of familiarity here, piecing together some of rap-rock’s moldiest clichés–Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” and Mountain’s “Long Red”–into a fresh beat. Similarly, Jay hijacks the two-line chorus from Ice-T’s “99 Problems” (and, a bit more obscurely, drops an LL quote into his rhyme) as he riffs off the past, working what you could call the “problem” genre of platinum rap.

In the original “99 Problems,” Ice and Brother Marquis catalogue the (presumably) unproblematic bitches they’ve accumulated. Jay, more wisely, focuses on his non-bitch-related problems, dazzling in the concision of the writing, each verse lasering on a single topic. (Kool Moe Dee would be proud.) First verse: business related problems, from critics to radio to advertisers. Second, a flash-back to old time police run-ins, capped by a virtuoso dialogue with a redneck sheriff. Third, the legal problems that face him if he confronts his foes. (Bonus points for not dubbing any of his adversaries “haters.”) Being the best ain’t everything. But sometimes it’s more than enough.

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