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.