For Shawn Carter, the last seven years have been ridiculous. In 1996, he came up from an impoverished childhood in New York's Marcy projects to record a debut that would eventually come to be considered one of hip-hop's landmark albums, and spent the succeeding six years dominating Billboard charts, filling the East Coast void left by Biggie's death, and building a hip-hop empire to rival Puffy's Bad Boy Entertainment. In that time, he's seen as many failures as successes-- critics panned him for selling out after the critical reverence of Reasonable Doubt, La Roc Familia was a disaster from any angle, and, by Jay's standards, last year's The Blueprint 2 couldn't even claim to be a commercial success. Still, he's come out on top time and again: Today, he's reclaimed the title as hip-hop's reigning emcee, and his Rocafella record label, clothing line, and film company together are said to be valued at more than $4.4 billion.
So why would he want out now, at the peak of his popularity? The Black Album, touted as his final release, offers some answers, though none as clear-cut as what may or may not be the truth: that it's all an elaborate publicity stunt. Or maybe it's not: Jay has cut an album every year for the past seven years; that he'd want a break of some sort now is understandable. Certain lyrics hint that this isn't the last record he'll cut, but if that's true, will his game still be as tight when gets around to the comeback? It's anyone's guess, and that mystery is part of what makes this album such an intriguing listen.
The prospect of hip-hop's finest producers laying down tracks for the final LP from the rap world's brightest talent has made The Black Album one of the most anticipated rap records of the decade. What's stunning is that it delivers rap's greatest career-ender since Outkast's Stankonia. Even in falling short of Jay's classics, Reasonable Doubt and 2001's The Blueprint, it manages to eclipse 1999's brilliant Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter as his third-best album-- which in itself makes it one of the year's best.
In light of the hype this record's received for its choice of beatmakers, we egomaniacally matched the personalities of our staff writers to Jay's producers. (However, we regret that we could not take the concept to its logical extreme and cease operations after publishing it.)
02 December 4th [p. Just Blaze; w. Rollie Pemberton]
In this game of stick-and-move with triumphantly spiraling Chi-Lites strings, Hova's mother Gloria narrates a dizzying tale of growth through adversity, unusual childhood circumstances, and the catalysts for our protagonist's career. The victorious overtone gives Carter the opportunity to apply his unwavering flow and powerful control of conceptual direction to his own personal experiences: When he details that he "had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted" and that "this is the life I chose, or rather, the life that chose me," the emotional context of the lines quickly turns to dumbstruck awe. Regardless of the reasonably simple Blueprint-tempered backing and familiar topical terrain, "December 4th" stands not just as one of Jay's finest performances to date, but Blaze's, too.
03 What More Can I Say [p. The Buchannans; w. Hartley Goldstein]
"What More Can I Say" is the sprawling pinnacle of every element that makes The Black Album an unrelentingly inspired future classic. Buchannans, one of two unknown producers featured here, supplies a triumphant instrumental that serves as a perfect counterpoint to Jay's trademark hubris and incendiary braggadocio. I mean, the track is introduced by a sample of dialogue from Gladiator: It doesn't get more epic than that, people! Merciless horn blasts, tender guitar licks, and turbulent string crescendos distract you when he identifies Martha Stewart as "Jewish," but the one element that makes "What More Can I Say" a true marvel is that, despite it serving as Jay-Z's alleged last hurrah, it manages to sound more like a celebratory changing of the guard than a self-penned elegy by one of hip-hop's greatest emcees.
04 Encore [p. Kanye West; w. Rob Mitchum]
It's a little hard to take Jay's claims of retirement at face value when The Black Album's first three songs all claim to be his last and this one makes reference to "when I come back like Jordan wearing the 45." But the concept of "Encore" makes such nitpicking irrelevant-- a track like this leaves you waiting for the comeback. Kanye West whips up a soul revue backing band complete with melancholy trumpet line and miasma-happy backup singers ("Hooo-woahhh-WOAHHH-ohvveee") for an imaginary mini-gig, while Jay contributes a very live-sounding performance. A posse chants for the hook while an emcee encourages crowd participation and the band idles between verses two and three. Sure, it sounds gimmicky on paper, but if anyone can pull it off it's "rap's Grateful Dead"... whatever that's supposed to mean. Keep on truckin', Jay.
05 Change Clothes [p. Neptunes; w. Ryan Schreiber]
The first single! And you know it's a hit already 'cause it's rocking the world's most reliable (and expensive) hip-hop production team. But no, and here's why not: The Neptunes, talented though they may be, have spread themselves a bit thin lately, coasting on Neptunes-by-numbers beats and Pharrell's by-now-goddamn-insidious falsetto. "Change Clothes" is, unfortunately, one of their worst productions since Busta's "Pass the Courvoisier"-- the vapid, forgettable chorus and cheesy piano loop are the obvious product of an off day in the studio. Jay fares no better, like he almost knows it's subpar-- just spits out a couple recycled lines, and forgoes his visual style to make room for crap like, "Young Hov in the house it's so necessary/ No bra with the blouse it's so necessary/ No panties and jeans that's so necessary." If they could afford to cut the Dre-produced "The Theater", surely this-- one of two Neptunes productions on a 14-track album-- could have been scrapped, too.
06 Dirt Off Your Shoulder [p. Timbaland; w. William Bowers]
If you're old, you probably macked in a maroon Fiero ten years ago, listening to Timbaland "get sticky" with Jodeci. If you're young, you could still spot him behind the curtain of this anthem's anti-syncopation and arcade-shogun keyboard coils. Don't be fooled by the title; the song is not a cave-in to Charlotte Beers (the dandruff-shampoo ad-exec who was until recently Bush's Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs), but that doesn't stop it from being a commercial for itself and its brand. Recapping the story of how Jay clambered from shooting birds at God while holding his testicles to being synonymous with overexposure, the song lives and dies by Timbaland's battering-ram beat and laser-tag riff. "Dirt" is gregarious but exclusive: It's meant to shake balcony barstools, but it coyly congratulates only those who have been beaten down. The chorus is about shedding a stigma, about the actualization of a capitalist dream, about legitimacy, about arrival-- for a guy ending his career, Jay's tone is suspiciously akin to pre-game smack. Because I'm old, I hear the Joeski Love ("Pee Wee's Dance") in Jay-Z's obtuse voice. Because I'm young, I acknowledge that he's larger than, er, life.
07 The Threat [p. 9th Wonder; w. Sam Chennault]
I can't decide what's stranger: that Little Brother producer 9th Wonder contributed a track on Jay-Z's final album, or that he's flipping a sample of R. Kelly. But it's 2003, and the entire underground/mainstream divide has been so flipped and conflated that it should come as no surprise. Nor should 9th's tendency to sound both hopelessly derivative and endlessly enjoyable; the track's rolling piano line and classic boom-bap breakbeat recall a smoother Primo, or a Pete Rock on autopilot.
Given a title like "The Threat" and Jigga's infamous street credentials, you'd expect a fairly macabre affair, but remember: This is a post-therapy Jigga (who dates Beyonc� and listens to Coldplay), not the crack slinger Reasonable Doubt introduced us to in '96. As such, the tone of the track is more comical than maudlin, and Cedric the Entertainer's guest spot won't let you forget it. Here, Jigga puts Larry King on his ass and namedrops Christina Aguilera, Bill O'Reilly, George Bush, Halle Berry, Warren Buffet, Joe Pesci, Sammy Davis Jr., Jet Li, David Blaine, and Frank Sinatra, and, in the second verse, even tries (only half-successfully) to twist them into verbs a la GZA's "Fame". The song is a disappointment, unfortunately-- an easy concept lazily executed. There are a couple of decent lines (e.g. "I will kill you, commit suicide, and kill you again"), but it's far from Jay's finest hour.
08 Moment of Clarity [p. Eminem; w. Ryan Schreiber, c/o Mullah Omar]
We asked Mullah Omar to write this part but he wanted all kinds of special treatment. Man, you should have seen his rider, it was totally nuts! It just proves Mullah makes the perfect Eminem: he's got his gimmick ("I WILL NOT BE EDITED!!!") and he just keeps beating you with it over and over. But for his outrageous demands, he still hits it out of the park; the same can't be said for Em, whose shit is all just the same these days: You get your minor-chord, downtempo horror-esque piano sample (a white boy copping a white boy-- where's Shadow's kickback on that shit?), your loping/plodding canned beat, some ominous strings, and you're done. The only difference between this and his Blueprint track, "Renagade", is that his sound was slightly less tired two years ago. Jay, fortunately, delivers a determined verse about his father's death, and one for Beanie Sigel. But saying he wants to "rhyme like Common Sense"? I cannot express my disappointment.
09 99 Problems [p. Rick Rubin; w. Brent DiCrescenzo]
Ain't-It-Cool rumor has it Hollywood plans for a live-action Transformers film. Feasibility of visual effects aside, the true question of the production is how to modernize Soundwave, the behemoth audio cassette "ghetto blaster" Transformer, for the MP3 generation. To the director, take a note from Rick Rubin's Jay-Z soundbomb: Keep it old school. Some studio suit surely wants a giant robot iPod smashing trucks, but the original concept still slays. Likewise, "99 Problems" towers over The Black Album's supposedly forward-looking tracks. Carrying the Decepticon analogy: The 808 kick quakes like Rumble's pistons. As the back of his toy box boasts, Frenzy's "screaming voice and belligerent manner alone could shake up an opponent, but he can enhance this effect by spinning the drum-like devices in his torso." So, too, does Rubin eject seismic, metallic blasts from his deck's chest like tornado-thrown telephone poles taking out a, um, transformer.
After years of intimate, acoustic productions for Johnny Cash and Tom Petty and his sawing work with Slayer and System of a Down, "99 Problems" re-establishes Rubin as THE mutherfucker with a swami's beard who invented this minimalist trunk rumble. And unlike any other track on this record, it can be said that Jay's vocals matter little. Close inspection reveals dubious claims such as, "Got beef with radio/ If I don't play their show/ They don't play my hits/ Well, I don't give a shit." His lips rip like Lazerbeak, but the meaning is inconsequential. Do Jay's problems run deeper than Rocawear inseam durability or Bentley electrical recalls? His self-aware braggadocio goes back to those days of comedic Jamaican toasts, which potentially amuse if you're ever tempted to turn down the volume.
10 Public Service Announcement [p. Just Blaze; w. Rollie Pemberton]
Dictating to a labored ringing piano roll and a thunderously high-toned extended organ riff, Jay-Z once again decimates his peers in their own game, handling the school of violent hubris in a manner that embodies not just mere lyrical supremacy but actual metaphorical depth. Hova is one of few artists who can ask his listenership to follow his fashion sense while simultaneously schooling the talent pool on rhyming style in a single line: "I got a hustler's spirit, nigga, period/ Check out my hat, yo, peep the way I wear it." It's also a way of saying that the genre's old hat to him these days, even while it was his style that so ridiculously raised the bar. A bold statement among bold statements, this track is mastery of a style, regardless of brevity, repetition, or random use of quotations.
11 Justify My Thug [p. DJ Quik; w. Chris Dahlen]
The big story behind this track is that Madonna was supposed to give it live vocals but couldn't make the deadline. Instead, they went with Sharlotte Gibson, a longtime backup vocalist for Whitney Houston, who pulls off an adequate impression. The track is all about DJ Quik's electro beat, though, which starts out whomping and wears itself out through repetition. Sadly, not much else happens. It's easy to tag this as the simplest, weakest moment on the record-- I don't think anyone could reasonably contest that-- but on the other hand, it is nice 'n' nasty, and hilarious for how it makes Jay's thug life lyrics so unromantic and just-for-show. The lyrics moan on about gangsta code and social ills, but over that beat, he just sounds like he wants to get some ass on his face.
12 Lucifer [p. Kanye West; w. Rob Mitchum]
On first listen, "Lucifer" comes off a bit too close to flavor-of-the-month material for an album that promised to avoid easy singles: The accelerated Max Romeo sample could be construed as pandering to the Jamaican influences back in favor with hip-hop, and the refrain, "I'm from the murder capitol where we murder for capital," is wordplay a little too beginner's-level for Hov. Fortunately, his verses make up for these slights by following an incredibly intricate structure, somehow managing to land on religious imagery every time the sample comes up, while Kanye's beat retains a snaky bounce without going down the obvious ragga route. If it does indeed end up a single, like "Beware of the Boys" it'll still be jagged enough to stand out in the trend-pile.
13 Allure [p. Neptunes; w. Ryan Schreiber]
This is more like it. The Neptunes come back hard from their substandard earlier offering, riding a string section slick enough to rival Love Unlimited, a pulsing kick/snare combo, and gunshots for percussive effect and good measure. Jay is particularly on point, killing line after line like a Blueprint standout. It's the penultimate Jay-Z track ever, and buoyed on that stormy, oceanic orchestra, Hov comes damn close to teary-eyed: "Shit, I know how this movie ends/ Still I play/ The starring role in Hovito's Way." "Allure" is Jay in eternal struggle with his vices, confident as ever he can give up the game, but even the title forebodes. He knows, and when the Neptunes downshift and the chorus kicks in, reality strikes: "But every time I felt that was that, it called me right back/ OHHH NOOOO!" This is the sound of a career high.
14 My 1st Song [p. Aqua and Joe "3H" Weinberger; w. Scott Plagenhoef]
After spending most of the record summing up his life and career, Jay thankfully doesn't try to end it with the Cliff's Notes version. He instead handles his "second major breakup" by coupling his typically self-celebratory language with avuncular advice-- from himself and Biggie, who drops in from the afterlife-- and a rare display of humility. Throughout the sentimental closer, Jay keeps his chin up and makes the song cry with emotive, bolero-tinged production from the previously unknown team of Aqua and Joe "3H" Weinberger. Always the entrepreneur, Hova abdicates his throne and slips into his full-time CEO role with a series of almost memoir-like shoutouts that double as teasers for his upcoming bio, The Black Book-- in stores soon!
-The Pitchfork Staff, November 17, 2003
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