Top 100 Albums of the Decade: #44 Jay-Z - The Black Album
Top 100 Albums of the Decade list will be posted over the course of 100 days. On September 23rd, we will post one album and continue every day until December 31st, when we will unveil our #1 album of the decade!
Please read our introduction to learn about our nominating and ordering process.
#44 Jay-Z - The Black Album
Having the task of writing a piece on Jay-Z, even over just the scope of one album, is monumental. Where does one begin? Where does one go? When does one feel justified enough to end? We could start with the obvious genre parallels: the Beatles to rock n’ roll, Miles Davis to jazz and so on, but let’s face it, since the passing of Biggie and Tupac, lyrically, there’s no better or more enigmatic MC than Jay-Z. And what more fitting way to discuss the span of Hova’s career and his enormous impact than giving a thorough analysis of his “retirement” album: The Black Album.
Now, obviously the statement of greatest MC would spark a very heated (and possibly dangerous) discussion amongst hip-hop purists, and rightly so. You’re gonna have the hard, hoodied up with fatigues, Nas corner, you’re gonna have the conscious-heavy, existential Common crew, and you’re gonna have the every indie white kid with glasses and a college degree Ghostface posse; and all are certainly well-versed enough to hold down the helm. But for sake of persuasion, let’s take a moment to look at a few facts, shall we.
First of all, every album Jay has released has been certified platinum (many times over) in U.S. sales alone, including his debut hip-hop classic, Reasonable Doubt. Anyone else…not even close, and consider that’s over the span of eight albums in seven years. That’s hard work, friends. Secondly, within that span, Jay watched as his “street cred” peaked and spiked--album to album--like the DOW JONES industrial average, as other rappers worked hard to hit him with a “sellout” tag, and as the east coast/west coast beef claimed the life of his best friend and mentor Christopher “Biggie” Wallace. Saying focused and hungry through all that is truly a testament to the hustler spirit. By any means necessary.
So now, The Black Album--billed on the streets before it was even mastered as Jay’s last hurrah. To this day, the question as to how the retirement buzz got to press rages on: a strategic PR release or an “accidental” leak to the rumor mill? Who can really say, but a brilliant move nonetheless. The Black Album plays out from start to finish like a Biopic film that comes full circle and touches on the tribulations of an entire life: triumphs and glories, losses and heartbreak, perseverance and growth, and finally, wisdom and giving, which is fitting, as after Reasonable Doubt Jay’s lyrical and production content were sacrificed, or “dumbed-down” as he puts it, to appease what major record label execs thought to be more “accessible” to the masses. And they were right in a sense, but at the expense of Jay’s more conscious fans and bloodthirsty critics. The Black Album was both Jay’s explanation of treading the path he chose, and his proof that he still had the hungry lyrical prowess of a man that retired the baking soda and cook pot for the rap game. It is braggadocio to the fullest.
The Black Album opens with a speech sample from an unknown orator (backed by a Just Blaze produced track) that declares “All things must come to an end, it is an inevitable part of the cycle of existence, all things must conclude”. Not much cryptic about that statement, I guess this really is lights out. After the interlude is the first track, "December 4th", produced by Just Blaze and narrated by his mother, Gloria Carter. The track is triumphant and full with sweeping horns and strings looping throughout. An incredible arrangement with an even more incredible story, as Jay goes into his childhood and opens with the declaration, “They never really miss you till you dead or you gone/so on that note, I’m leaving after this song”. It serves as Act I in the three act play and an honest insight as to where these verses come from.
The next five tracks are fuel-soaked brag songs of varying degrees. "What More Can I Say", produced by The Buchannans opens with a sample from the film Gladiator and is a response to all the hate bars other rappers have spit about him covering everything from his dress style to the accusations of him biting lines. “I’m not a biter, I’m a writer for myself and others/I say a BIG verse I’m only biggin’ up my brother.” He’s gettin’ his grown man on in this track. As much as I love Kanye, the next track Encore has soft production and an even softer R&B hook by Kanye's buddy, John Legend, which takes away from the lyrical content; one of only two throwaways on the album. "Change Clothes" is a Neptunes produced club banger for the ladies to all scream to upon first note, and run to the dance floor--with their little handbags and even littler dresses--to shake their asses. But just when the hood was about to hit the “stop” button, on comes the ridiculous trunk-knocker "Dirt Off Your Shoulders" produced by Timbaland. This was the big single off the album, reaching #5 on the Billboard charts and the one you stood in front of the mirror to, tilted and cocked your hat just a bit, and mugged yourself while imagining you’re on stage dominating a crowd. Don’t lie, fool. It’s rare that an album’s top single is also one of the best on the album, as much as I want to deny it out of spite and elitism, I gotta be real. The track "Threat" ends the solid run of straight brag bars. There’s really not much significant about it other than it’s produced by Murs and Little Brother staple, 9th Wonder. It’s an interesting choice to me because the producers on the album read like a who’s who on a team of all-stars and then there’s this little indie producer that miraculously made the cut.
The second half of the album is where shit really starts heating up both lyrically and production-wise. "Moment Of Clarity" takes a moment to address those fair-weather fans and critics that turned on him and contains possibly the best bars on the album:
“I dumbed down for my audience then doubled my dollas/They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”/If skills sold, truth be told I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli/Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mill—I ain’t been rhymin’ like Common since”.
Fire, son. Rick Rubin produced hard-rock banger "99 Problems" was the fourth and final single on the album, and similar to another Rubin produced track, Beastie Boys’ "No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn" relies heavily on a looping guitar riff sample. The lyrics are as hard as the track and garnered Hova plenty of controversy with its lyrical criticism of New York police. The next track is Just Blaze’s third production and by far one of the best on the album in "PSA" (Public Service Announcement); a heavy hitter with a big, blaring pipe pipe organ chiming in over a looping and very subtle, but incredible little piano ditty. The DJ Quik produced "Justify My Thug" is so bad it’s not even worth discussing; obviously the second and final throwaway track on the album. Interestingly, the following track, "Lucifer", Kanye’s second crack at production on the album, is hands down the flamethrower of the album. It’s a piano driven track that features what has become Kanye’s production signature: a huge, multi-layered track with different drum tracks, and various noises, and a big, obscure R&B vocal sample that loops underneath the verses and chorus. The verses are Jay’s plea to the lord to accept his murdered friends into heaven and to forgive him for seeking revenge where he not so subtly declares “I can introduce ya to your maker/Bring ya closer to nature/Ashes after they cremate ya bastards”.
And bringing this whole journey together is the final cut "My 1st Song" which is a blueprint for young cats to follow to make it in the game, no pun intended, if you follow. Produced by Aqua and 3H, the beat is absurd and opens with a vocal sample from an interview Biggie did back in the day. The best part about it isn’t the lyrical content, but more the role call Jay rattles off at the end of the track, a sort of shout out spanning his whole career and everyone that saw him through along the way, from start to finish.
Is The Black Album the greatest hip-hop album of all time? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, and in the end, who cares really, because one man’s opinion is no more or less valid than the next man’s. What is significant however is that this album (for the time being anyway) marks the end of the career of a behemoth. Regardless of the ups and downs and the arguments and the criticisms that will certainly blaze on as time passes, there’s no denying that Jay-Z has built an empire from nothing more than a lot of talent, a lot of hard work and a swagger the size of King-Kong’s nut sack.
“It’s ya boy!”
-By Jason Bow
Check back tomorrow for the next album! To see the full list of the Top 100 Albums of the Decade, click here.