Jay Z The Black Album

How big of a deal was Jay-Z in 2003? Big enough that when he announced The Black Album would be his last, he rightfully drew comparisons to Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders, legendary athletes who stepped away from the game at the peak of their powers. Big enough that everyone from the hip-hop press to the old-guard rock critics to the burgeoning internet music media treated Shawn Carter’s alleged rap retirement as a capital-e Event. Big enough that his farewell concert at Madison Square Garden — the one documented in the movie Fade To Black – was such a hot ticket that even Kanye couldn’t get on the list. Big enough that Jay could release a record called The Black Album, cribbing the name from Metallica’s 16x platinum 1991 blockbuster, and it didn’t even seem that audacious. He was, to quote AllMusic’s review, “going out in top form… the best rapper and the most popular.”

Of course, he didn’t really retire from rap, but we’ll get to all that in a minute. For now, let’s appreciate The Black Album, released 10 years ago today, for what it is: Jay-Z’s last truly great record. And wow, this thing is seriously great. Reviewers have always tended to rank The Black Album behind Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint in Jay’s discography, and Tom counted Vol 3… Life & Times Of S. Carter above it last year, but that just goes to show how many classics dude racked up in the eight-year stretch that comprises his career’s first arc. We can split hairs about how his LPs stack up against each other, but it’s hard to imagine Jay coming up with a better victory lap than The Black Album.

This thing boasts two undeniable instant classics in Rick Rubin’s concrete-shattering “99 Problems” and Timbaland’s smooth-yet-jittery “Dirt Off Your Shoulders,” and you could make a strong case for the non-single “Public Service Announcement,” that rapturous Just Blaze blowout, as a third. Production-wise, in addition to those hits, Jay famously recruited an all-star team ranging from 9th Wonder to the Neptunes to the young Roc-A-Fella signee Kanye West (also: Eminem), and they all presented their finest wares to the king. (To be fair, the Neptunes’ “Change Clothes” bricked as a lead single, but it’s classic Pharrell lite-funk as far as I’m concerned.) The spoken word samples seem a bit obvious in retrospect — Jay’s mother recounting his childhood on “December 4th,” the Gladiator monologue on “What More Can I Say” — but that’s partially because they’ve become as canonical as the orchestral swell on “A Day In The Life” or the cash register on “Money.” They’re crucial ingredients on a crucial LP.

As for Jay himself, he’s never swaggered like this before or since. He raps with the utter confidence of a man who knows he’s on top, a rapper who understands that he’s actually leaving his audience wanting more. As usual, he’s incredibly dexterous, charismatic, and clever, knowing exactly when to take a breath and when to pummel the listener with syllables. Nobody can glide so easily between cadences and across production styles. He presents himself as believably complex too, able to lecture with moral authority about police persecution even as he confesses that he gave up his aspiration to be a so-called conscious rapper in pursuit of the almighty dollar. (Note to Jay: Please never rap like Common.) The list of shout-outs at the end of “My 1st Song,” concluding with Biggie Smalls, casually but purposefully reminds us of his roots among legends. And the mythmaking, always a favorite topic of Jay’s, is off the charts, presenting his life as a cinematic epic and basically pulling it off. He fixates on his impending retirement throughout, especially at the beginning. On “December 4th”: “If you can’t respect that, your whole perspective is wack/ Maybe you’ll love me when I fade to black.” On “What More Can I Say”: “I’m supposed to be #1 on everybody’s list/ We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” Then comes a song called “Encore” and another called “Change Clothes.” The album is very much designed as a goodbye, and if he really had retired from rap after this, we’d be missing him dearly.

But we all know what happened next: Jay never really went away. In fact, he became a more inescapable cultural force. He spit various guest verses for the next couple years, most famously his glorious “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man!” tirade on Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix).” Then he went back to releasing albums of his own with the notoriously rancid Kingdom Come in 2006. In hindsight, the break turned out to be incredibly savvy, Jay’s chance to change clothes and go, to smooth out his transition from the streets to the boardroom. Per Tom’s great Countdown of his discography, it made for a clean break from the “bloodthirsty crime lord” to the “wry and introspective elder statesman.” (Here’s something crazy to think about: As of this year, that “elder statesman” arc is just as long as the “bloodthirsty crime lord” arc.) The retirement and return was a brilliant move for Jay-Z™ the brand and a disaster for Jay-Z the rapper. And for that reason, The Black Album is a truly momentous album. It might not have marked the end of Jay’s rap career or even the end of Jay-Z the fountain of legendary hip-hop moments — “Empire State Of Mind,” Kanye’s “So Appalled” and the cataclysmic “Niggas In Paris” all happened post-retirement — but it was the end of Jay-Z’s run as rap’s MVP. And while that’s something to mourn, the music therein remains something to celebrate.

So let’s do that. What’s your favorite Black Album track? Where were you when you realized brushing your shoulders off was going to be “a thing” now? Were you there at MSG? Do you wish he would have stayed retired? Would you like to make the case that Watch The Throne was actually Jay’s last great album? Sound off in the comments.

Comments (35)
  1. I have never been the biggest Jay-Z fan, but I remember listening to a lot of these songs on Danger Mouse’s Grey Album when he mixed all the verses with Beatles samples.

    Also, I remember my boss making this joke: “I’ve got 99 problems, and they’re all bitches.” Poor guy.

  2. “Lucifer” holds up surprisingly well. Can’t believe this came out 10 years ago. I remember playing the hell out of this album in college, thanks for reminding me of my own mortality, sgum.

  3. “Would you like to make the case that Watch The Throne was actually Jay’s last great album?”

    Nope, but I would argue that American Gangster is! Heck, I think it *might* be just as good as the Black Album. It didn’t have the smash singles, sure, but the storytelling is exquisite from the first song to the last. I can’t think of any filler on the entire album, and I love that it’s fairly low on guests. Nas and Beanie show up and both kill it. Wayne’s verse isn’t all that spectacular, but it’s still Wayne being Wayne when I still got excited anytime his name popped up on an album tracklist.

    “Pray,” “No Hook,” “Roc Boys,” “Party Life,” “Ignorant Shit,” “Success” and “Fallin’” are ALL terrific, if anyone ever skipped this album for some reason.

    Oh yeah, and The Black Album? Incredible, obviously. Loved the article as well. I still remember getting this CD the day it came out and driving around listening to it, laughing at the punchlines and grooving to the huge beats. “What More Can I Say” might be my favorite track on the whole thing.

    • As a big defender of American Gangster, even I have to admit that “Hello Brooklyn 2.0″ is worthy of skipping, but “Roc Boys,” “Ignorant Shit,” “Success” and “No Hook” are some next level Jay-Z cuts.

      • The second verse on Ignorant Shit is one of his slickest verses ever. The pass-off between him and Siegel is seamless.

      • Nicely done – those are probably the 4 strongest tracks IMO, too. Though I don’t even mind “HB2.0″.

        And yeah, American Gangster was his last borderline great release. It might not be quite consistent enough to register as truly great, but it’s close enough to make the discussion.

    • Roc Boys is my jam. The production is so triumphant!

  4. I merely *like* The Black Album, but it does have some stellar moments. It’s just that the whiffs stand out for me too. I’d argue that Watch The Throne and American Gangster are late-era Jay-Z albums that deserve all the praise the get. AG, in particular, has an absolutely blistering back half. I feel like when that album came out everyone was all “this is amazing” and then a month later they were all “ehh, whatever.” Guys, that album’s back half is still one of the hottest hip-hop albums I’ve ever heard.

    • This is awesome.

      And this part made me laugh out loud:

      “I mean she aint no Morgan Freeman or nothin but she got the job done.”

    • I appreciate that you posted this; it led me to read some of his other reviews. WHY DID I NOT KNOW HE DID THIS? Sorry for the screaming.

      His Pusha T review was a great read. The Kanye was fun, even if I love the album and he wants it to die a million deaths.

    • Sorry, my downvote was accidental as a new Stereogum user: “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” appear in reversed order on an app I use. This was definitely an entertaining read regardless of who wrote it, and the embedded behind-the-scenes videos with the producer teams were awesome to gain some perspective on what went into the LP.

  5. As an old-school rap-head, I’ve always looked at Jay Z w/ a very skeptical eye. But, I can appreciate his initial run and I think most of the points here were well made. I’m not sure about this Rolling Stones of rap (Public Enemy is that) but he best carried on the legacy of early rap and into the new millenium mainstram, I’ll give him that. But where he is comparable to the Rolling Stones is that his career of suckitude is now eclipsing his career of quality records. He came back and cashed in. And I think people are getting over it, but it took a surprisingly long time for people to get sick of him cashing in. I have high aspirations for him as a businessman and I hope he kills it as a sports agent. And, puhleeze, “Empire State of Mind” is a low point and his performance on WTT was embarrassing. I think Jay Z will be looked at as 3 careers: 1) The great rapper (96-03), 2) the music brand (06-12) and the visionary businessman (but crap rapper) if he can straighten out this Barney’s stuff. He needs to spare us all and drop the music career at this point.

    • Agree to disagree, at this point in his career Jay-Z strikes me as a grade A rapper only when featured on other peoples songs (except that new Drake one…), but the one strong exception I will make is for WTT. Your argument that his performance on that album was embarrassing doesn’t make any sense to me, particularly if you identify as “an old school rap head.”

      With the exception of the Kendrick-Dre bonus track “The Recipe,” when was the last time you heard rap collaborations that so seamlessly transitioned between rappers? That sort of back and forth cohesive lyricism is something distinctly old school, and it was the funnest part of the album to me. Post-Lil Wayne rap collaborations too often pile artists onto the tracks with each rapper working in their own little bubble.

  6. If I were to make a list of my favorite Jay-Z tracks, Public Service Announcement would be my #1, no question.

    • Which brings up another point, the sequencing on this album is bizarre. I shouldn’t take a genius to realize that this album needs to start with “PSA” and end with “Encore.” Listening to the Black Album as is is like hearing a really good album of shuffle. Yeah, the songs are there, but the flow is way off.

  7. “PSA” is a brilliantly composed track, in my opinion. Some throwback injected with the sample (which I think few rappers–then or since–could have gotten away with including and avoided a contrived feel) but it feels fresh every time I hear it. Jay blends his influences so well into a sound that is uniquely his but doesn’t feel dated or anything but timeless upon listening.

    I roadtripped across the country with a buddy in 2007 when transferring between Navy duty stations (California to Florida) and “PSA” has anecdotal feel-good memories attached to it. We went out in St. Louis, MO in our dress blues uniform and established a good enough rapport with the band at a jazz & blues club by Busch Stadium that they let us and a guy we met that night get on stage and perform “PSA” with me on drums, my buddy on keys and our newfound friend KILLING it on the vocals. Such a cool experience as I really never went out in uniform other than that night.

    “Threat” and “What More Can I Say” are also favorites of mine, as far as the deeper cuts on the album go, and the hook on “Lucifer” is so sick. Can’t believe it’s been 10 years. Thanks for a great retrospective, and I think I may find myself giving this record and Danger Mouse’s Grey Album some spins soon.

  8. The Black Album prrrrrrrrrrobably wins the Bob Dobalina Grammy Award for Best Rap Album of all-time.

    Public Service Announcement is hot fire.

    Justify My Thug is just god awful though. Fuck that song hard.

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  10. Am I the only one who likes The Grey Album better? I’m not DangerMouse’s biggest fan or anything, I just think that album is amazing. No one will ever make such great beats out of Beatles songs ever again.

    Don’t get me wrong, Black Album has lots of great production on it, but it’s sound is scattered as fuck. It’s like if you put Danny Brown’s “Old” in a blender and the track order stopped making sense. Maybe this is kind of all boiling down to the fact that I think Rick Rubin’s beat on “99 Problems” is obnoxious and that mashing it up with “Helter Skelter” was one of the best ideas since flint met tinder.

  11. I don’t know at this point if I think one is better than the other, but I will say that it wasn’t until I heard The Grey Album that I finally decided I liked Jay Z. I had started warming to hip-hop by 2002, but I held onto not liking Jay foranother couple of years, but once Dangermouse lured me in with the Beatles and I gave him a fair chance I obviously changed my tune.

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