Jay-Z - The Black Album

by Ashley Curtis Rating: Release Date:2003-11-19

"Sean Carter was born December 4, weighing in at 10lb 8oz. He was the last of my four children, the only one who didn't give me any pain when I gave birth to him. That's how I knew he was a special child." - Gloria Carter

It is ironic that the first track (with the exemption of 'Interlude') of Jay-Z's eighth studio work, The Black Album, opens with his mother recollecting his birth to the world when in fact this album was billed as his last before he retired and shut the book on the hip hop industry. In fact, the first line is: "They say they never really miss you 'til you're dead or you're gone/so on that note I'm leaving after this song." We all know that this so called retirement turned out to be false (he released Kingdom Come just three years later) but if he had taken a huge step back from the music industry, this would have been a fine album to call it a day on.

Let's take it back to 2003 for a second. This was undoubtedly one of the year's most anticipated hip-hop releases, even more so when Jay announced that it would be his final farewell. However, deep down, we all knew it wouldn't his last. His record label, Rocafella, and other subsidiary ventures like clothing lines and sports bars made him worth around $4bn. You don't just walk away from that.

Either way, Jay assembled nearly all of hip hop's finest producers to work on his last hurrah. Let's have a rundown of these titans: Just Blaze, Kanye West, The Neptunes, 9th Wonder, Timbaland, DJ Quik, Eminem, Rick Rubin and more. That's some list. Eminem's track, 'Moment of Clarity', is completely reminiscent of the Eminem of old - the menacing sound of the violins and the forward driving beat wouldn't be out of place on The Slim Shady LP - and Rick Rubin's hip-hop/rock background is evident on the thundering '99 Problems'. Kanye is no stranger to producing Jay tracks (he worked on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, The Blueprint and The Blueprint 2 previously) so it is no surprise that he appears on The Black Album, specifically one of the albums best tracks, 'Encore'. The Neptunes produce two tracks, the commercially successful summer song 'Change Clothes' and the brooding, almost ballad-like 'Allure'. Even an unknown producer, The Buchanans, produces a classic in the form of 'What More Can I Say', a song which has epic soaring vocals, multiple wind and string instruments and a Gladiator audio sample thus cementing its intimidating grand status. Other producers on this record would be incredibly proud to call that song their own. It is clear that the production is absolutely second-to-none which already grounds this record as one of the finest hip hop albums of the year. All without Jay saying a word.

But that's where the album comes into its own. Jay effortlessly flows through '99 Problems' - and I do mean effortlessly, not a single rhyme or rhythm seems out of place - and his storytelling ability is fantastic. He regales the listener with story from "the year 94" when he was pulled over by "the motherfuckin' law" with such clarity and imagination, it's almost as if you're in the passenger seat with him. He has such self-belief in his own flow; it's just breathtaking to listen to it. The best part is that he knows this. On 'What More Can I Say', he claims "There's never been a nigga this good for this long/this hood/or this pop is hot/or this strong/with so many different flows" and while many rappers claim to be the best, Jay has the credentials to actually back up his clear confidence. After all, how can you argue with "Benz paid for/friends they roll/private jets down to Turks and Caicos/Chrys case loads/I don't give a shit"?

Don't let this confidence be misinterpreted as pure arrogance though. The Black Album shows some of the hustler aspects of Jay-Z but also reveals his tumultuous childhood and some of the "demons deep inside that would rise when confronted". On 'December 4th', he reveals his pain when his left father left ("now all the teachers couldn't reach me/and my momma couldn't beat me/hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me") and on 'Moment of Clarity' he eventually forgives his father when the latter is on his death bed ("so pop I forgive you/for all the shit that I live through/It wasn't all your fault").

For all the "it's hard to yell when the barrel's in your mouth" ['What More Can I Say'] and "put that knife in ya, take a little bit of life from ya" ['Threat'] gangster swagger found on the album, it actually has a lot more reflective moments than you might realise. The penultimate track, 'Allure', deals with Jay's vices and how he tries to escape them like how "James Dean couldn't escape the allure". He relates his current life to that of fictional criminal Carlito Brigante in Carlito's Way ("Shit, I know how this movie ends/still I play/the starring role in Hovito's Way") and we all know how that one ended (spoiler: not well). But it's the allure of the lifestyle, the crime and the game that keeps on bringing him back. In hindsight, the notion of the allure to these vices could be interpreted as the glamour that the hip hop industry holds for him: "But every time I felt that was that/it called me right back, It called me right back/man it called me right back - oh no!" and that's the draw that brought him back to make Kingdom Come, American Gangster andThe Blueprint 3.

To put it bluntly, Jay-Z's The Black Album is his best output since his debut, Reasonable Doubt. It's lyrics are poignant; it's production fresh and crisp; it's flow unparalleled. For an album that was meant to be his curtain call, it feels like Jay is at his very peak. They say you should always walk away when you're at the top, but you, I and the whole world knew deep down this wouldn't be the end of Jay-Z. I think he knew it too.

Top 3 Tracks: Allure, What More Can I Say, Encore

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