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Jay-Z: The Black Album

Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: December 9, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There's so much speculation and philosophizing going on surrounding the release of Jay-Z's self-proclaimed "final" release, The Black Album, that it's tempting to ignore all of it. Only one thing should matter: Whether it's good. Right?

Well, the answer, like Jay-Z himself, isn't that simple. Yes, it's important whether The Black Album is enjoyable, whether it ably showcases the man's talents. (Before we get bogged down in intangibles: Yes on the latter count, for reasons that should become evident as this review progresses.) Context counts for an awful lot, though, and it's impossible to judge The Black Album separate from Jay-Z's well-documented retirement from hip-hop -- in large part because the rapper himself can't stop talking about it. This isn't just Shawn Carter's last album (for the foreseeable future, anyway -- even Jay-Z leaves the door open for a possible Michael Jordan-like return down the road). It's his last-ditch attempt at establishing a legacy. Or, more to the point, his attempt to continually remind us of said legacy: Jay-Z knows that for better or worse, his entire body of work will end up speaking for itself, and the best he can do now is create a fitting capstone to a storied career.

Not surprisingly, the way he elects to achieve this is by erecting a mammoth monument to his own importance. What is surprising is the fact that he does so with a skill that renders the results more than just another tiresome exercise in ego-pumping. The legacy songs (as compared to the songs that do other things besides harp on Jay-Z's place in the pop-cultural firmament) are invested with appropriate flourishes of pomp and circumstance, from Just Blaze's emotion-stirring track for "December 4th" to Eminem's patented baroque tension-building on "Moment of Clarity." And Jay-Z swaggers through these tracks like the hip-hop Sinatra he is, so unself-conscious about his remarkably titanic sense of self that he avoids seeming a hopeless caricature even when he trots out his own mother to intone his praises, documentary-style, on "December 4th" (his birthday, naturally).

It's to Jay-Z's credit that aside from this cameo, he keeps The Black Album clear of guest rappers; this spectacle of self-love would seem baser, less mythic, if he required a parade of well-wishers to walk on and takes turns kissing his ring. (The sole exception is Neptune Pharrell Williams, wearing out his pop-cultural welcome on "Change Clothes," in which he recalls an eager, yapping puppy humping his master's leg. His increasingly grating falsetto is completely out of place on an album so concerned with one singular identity.) By keeping the lyrical focus on himself, Jay-Z creates a hermetically sealed universe in which there are no other concerns save The Big One: His imminent departure.

And boy, does he have some issues to work out about that. "Moment of Clarity" finds him reaching for an epiphany, coming to grips with his place in the musical landscape. It even allows him a rare moment of something approaching lyrical humility: "If skills sold, truth be told / I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli / Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since." The implication is clear: Jay-Z seems to acknowledge that there are better rappers out there, and he feels trapped, artistically, by his own success. As he notes seconds before: "The music I be makin', I dumb down for my audience / To double my dollars / They criticize me for it / Yet they all yell 'Holla'."

That sentiment is absent from "What More Can I Say," in which Jay-Z alternates between pleading for and demanding his due. "Pound for pound I'm the best to ever come around here," he boasts, displaying the rote machismo that has so often dragged him down. But the song's real revelation comes at the end, in which he states "The real shit that you get when you bust down my lines / Add that to the fact I went Plat a bunch of times / Times that by my influence on pop culture / I supposed to be Number One on everybody list / We'll see what happens when I no longer exist / Fuck this."

That last exhalation is delivered as a sullen sigh and a pouting, petulant resignation: It's the sound of a hurt child turning his back on the thing that hurt him, pretending it doesn't matter. That it comes on the heels of the previous line, with its tearful "They'll all be sorry" suicide note overtones, suggests that there's more to Jay-Z's retirement than simple "Been there, done that" boredom. It's the sound of a million-selling superstar in full-on existential crisis mode. Fame, fortune, a relationship with Beyoncé Knowles ("Got the hottest chick in the game / Wearin' my chain," he alludes on "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)"), accolades from critics and peers -- a confused Carter, confronted with a void none of these things can fill, seems to suffer a failure of ideas as to what to do next, and so he just shrugs his shoulders and goes home.

Things aren't that cut-and-dried, of course. Over the course of The Black Album, Jay-Z continually makes reference to his dark side, especially on the vengeful, soul-searching "Lucifer" (centered around a sample that recalls the discordant soul-singer moments of Moby's 18 and DJ Shadow's The Private Press) -- and let's not forget the matter of his legal battle surrounding his alleged stabbing of Lance "Un" Rivera. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as even the aggressively anthemic litany of woes "99 Problems" (produced by Rick Rubin) proves. Welding crunchy Billy Squier and Mountain samples together in an unholy fusion, it rocks harder than any other track here, and would be the undisputed centerpiece of an album that wasn't so dominated by the specter of Carter's own mortality. The song also seems to herald a kinder, gentler Jay-Z (Knowles's influence, perhaps?); its refrain of "99 problems and a bitch ain't one" can be read as a turn away from the desultory denigration of "hos."

Of course, there's another way to read it as well: In each chorus the "bitch" isn't actually referring to a woman but to a trouble outlined in the verse, be it a police dog or some other foe. It's not a huge leap to interpret this to mean that even these trials fail to register on Carter's radar. The "99 problems," then, might be more philosophical in nature. Even here, the possibility remains that Jay-Z is helplessly entangled in questions about his place in the grand scheme of things.

Such abstractions aren't altogether new to rap, particularly the strain of self-aggrandizing, testosterone-laden rap of which Jay-Z is a practitioner. His flash of humility on "Moment of Clarity" aside, for most of The Black Album Carter ignores the fact that superiority in rap, as in most things, is subjective -- that it can't be proven, and anyway is beside the point. Competition is nice, but it's self-confidence that counts. In this, swagger matters as much as skill, and Jay-Z possesses both traits in abundance. But Carter's sulky obsession with proving himself against a field that has all but laid down and acknowledged him as its master detracts from the hard-won grandeur wrought by this nostalgic magnum opus of self-regard (to say nothing of the engaging beats and typically nimble rhymes). It's a dichotomy perfectly encapsulated in a couplet from "Public Service Announcement": "Only God can judge me, so I'm gone / Either love me, or leave me alone."

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