It’s easy to ignore the whack rapper who rhymes about nothing. Less easy to dismiss is the legitimate MC who rhymes about nothing. Jay-Z qualifies as the latter—a master craftsman who builds altars to the gods of gluttony and consumption. Jay-Z’s stilo—”How much can I get, and how quick can I get it?”—is the motto of the black bourgeoisie. Yet, when he wants to be, Jay-Z is one of hiphop’s best MCs. In an age that celebrates trendiness and imitation, he has crafted a conversational rhyme style that he executes with near-brilliance. He’s mastered the art of normalizing rap—of making you believe that his verses are merely monologues that just happen to rhyme.

Jay-Z communicates with an uncanny ease that derives from his playful approach to words and an ability to flip tired clichés into clever punch lines: “Nigga, I’m straight butter lemme remind you/Act like you out your mind, I’ll put your mind outta you/I do anything when I put my mind to it/A whole lot more when I put my nine to it.” He seems as natural with a mike as a 10-year-old with a set of Legos.

But for all his vaunted linguistic acumen, Jay-Z’s vision reaches no higher than fast cars, loose women, and quick money. Listening to a Jay-Z album is a perverted—almost sado-masochistic—exercise for hiphop heads. You really wanna hate him. You curse DJ Premier for lacing him with such a hot track. You reason that maybe if he’d stop spitting phat lines, you could take that damned Reasonable Doubt CD out of the disc changer. You grit your teeth, then pause and half-grin, as he explains to his mate why she should accept his womanizing: “I been sinning since you been playing with Barbie and Ken and/You can’t change a player’s game in the ninth inning/The chrome rims spinning keeps ’em grinning/So I run way the fuck up in ’em and wrinkle they face like linen.”

No man since the Notorious B.I.G. has better mastered the craft of making the ugly sound beautiful. With his new release, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z furthers his mastery, but it’s not enough to save the album. Life is done in by several factors, the least of which is Jay-Z himself. As an MC, he delivers with clever punch lines and lucid narratives. But too many times he sounds as if his performance has been handcuffed by the meandering production and the plethora of low-rate guest stars.

I had a hint that this CD would have problems when I looked on the back of the case and saw that only two of the album’s 14 tracks did not have a guest appearance. Where Jay-Z’s past two albums were powered by his own lyrical force, Life relies on crutches that Jay-Z never needed in the first place. His guest list reads like a who’s who of trend-riders and anti-MCs.

You can start within Jay-Z’s own camp, with Memphis Bleek, who, at the beginning of the album, is introduced as a new and better Jay-Z. Bleek’s performances are drearily average at best—true to his name. Jay-Z also enlists the aid of unknowns like Da Ranjahz and Amil along with current favorites such as DMX and the Lox, neither of whom is in Jay-Z’s league.

Even when his guests simply sing the hook and provide commentary, they ruin songs: Too $hort, for instance, on “A Week Ago,” begins rambling into fairy-tale land, asserting that if it weren’t for snitches, drug dealers would use their money to raise the quality of life in the ghetto—an amazing illustration of the feeblemindedness that has handcuffed hiphop.

Besides the gratuitous cameos, there’s the matter of Jay-Z’s pathetic production. Where Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 were heavy on producer Ski’s soulful loops and Premier’s chest-clutching drums, Life relies on the bounce of Timbaland and a crew of unknowns. At no point on the album do the tracks ever match Jay-Z’s lyrics. And on the one song that Premier did come back to produce, Jay-Z doesn’t even rhyme.

Jay-Z is a better MC than Life would have you believe. None of the album’s cuts even approach the genius of Lifetime’s “Where I’m From” or “You Must Love Me.” Instead, we get rote redundancy like “Money, Cash, Hoes” and “Paper Chase.” The change is a sign of the times: Rap has quickly become popular music, and, as such, more manufactured and less artistic.

Unlike Jay-Z, Pras is not complex. The kid is just plain horrible. With Pras, it’s not a matter of having destructive content and wretched mike skills; it’s having no content and no mike skills. Pras gets credit for handling much of the Fugees’ business affairs, for producing a few headbangers on the Fugees’ classic The Score, and for crafting the track for Redman’s duet with Method Man, “Do What Ya Feel.” But he has no business clutching a mike, and certainly none with a solo album.

Ghetto Supastar may be one of the worst hiphop albums ever released. It epitomizes the term “fronting,” for its author is neither ghetto nor a superstar. Pras went to school in Jersey with decidedly middle-class fellow Fugee Lauryn Hill, and any superstar status he’s garnered comes from the little bit of light reflecting off of Hill and Fugee Wyclef Jean. It is because of albums like Supastar that I continue to believe in the relevance of that shopworn phrase “Keep it real.”

The album is titled after the hit single off the Bulworth soundtrack of the same name, which has dance appeal. There are the driving bass line, the simple hook, and the zaniness of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, all of which combine to give the track good ass-shake potential. But these factors work in spite of Pras’ rapping, not because of it. Supastar attempts to follow the lead of its hit single by providing a sung hook on nearly every cut, but the elements never come together to shape a satisfying whole.

As a rapper, Pras doesn’t busy himself with narrative and actual coherency, preferring instead to string together clichés such as “Every dog got his day” and “ways and means.” But none of it goes anywhere. On the album’s first single, “Blue Angels,” Pras babbles about nothing in particular, and at the end of the song, you wonder why you even troubled your ears with the cut in the first place. But you can expect idle nonsense from the man who, on the remix of the Fugees’ “Vocab,” authored perhaps the dumbest line ever uttered by an MC: “Beebee-be-beebee-be-beebee-be-low.”

The album’s worst aspect is not Pras’ MC-ing, however, but the way he begs for acceptance. On three compulsory phone-message interludes, Pras has several stars, from Naomi Campbell to Elvis Costello, leaving voice messages indicating how anxiously they’re awaiting his debut album. It’s the mark of an artist who does not believe his work can stand alone. It sounds as if Pras knows his album isn’t good, but hopes that endorsements from cool rich people like Donald Trump will validate him. But all the interludes validate is Pras’ own insecurity—that and the fact that Costello should never fix his mouth to comment on hiphop.CP