The thing I love about Jay-Z is that he doesn’t ignore hip-hop fundamentals: honest lyrics wedded to uncluttered, funky beats. Like an old-school devotee, he’s most concerned with rocking the party and everyone having a good time. This is evident on his latest live recording, backed instrumentally by Philadelphia’s The Roots in the intimate if corporate-slut setting of MTV’s Unplugged Studios in NYC.

All the catchy hits are redefined here by real musicians and singers, from “Big Pimpin” and “Hard Knock Life (The Ghetto Anthem)” to one of last year’s most memorable smashes, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” which basically recounts Jay-Z’s days selling weed and crack along the mid-East Coast corridor from New York to Virginia: “Fo’shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in VA/ Was herbin’ ’em in the home of the Terrapins/ Got it dirt cheap for them.” Then he moves to commentary on the music industry: “I’m overchargin’ niggaz for what they did to the Cold Crush/ pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hold us.”

Through his attention to great ‘70s funk and soul influences, the jigga man is heads above other mainstream playas in the rap game who rely on sleek production, pectorals and attitude. And The Roots, with their tight funk/jazz stylings—complete with flute and strings—are a perfect complement to Jay-Z’s borough flow, making for one of the better hip-hop albums of the year. He may glorify the professional-thug life, but—like the late, great Notorious Biggie—he makes the ladies like it. Guest artists include talented neo-soul vocalist Mary J. Blige on "Can’t Knock the Hustle."