Looking back at Jay Z's planned finale 12 years later.
Jay Z’s Black Album is an objective classic. When Jay announced that the follow-up to his Blueprints was going to be his last record ever, the hype reached a rapid boil. He employed all of his best collaborators for beats, and featured no other rappers. This was to be Jay’s farewell address, and despite the fact that he came back a few years later (like all the greats seem to do), that vibe is still present throughout the record.
The first words Jay says on the record are, “They say ‘they never really miss you til you dead or you gone,’ so on that note I'm leaving after the song.” The message is recurring throughout the record’s fourteen tracks, but it isn’t the only subject matter Jay is fixated on for what was going to be his final music for the world.
“December 4th” plays out like a mini-autobiography, with his mother narrating the story for extra authenticity. “Now all the teachers couldn't reach me and my momma couldn't beat me hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me,” is one of the many glimpses into the life of Sean Carter. “Allure” sticks around the same subject matter as Hov details his hustler’s mindset over a soothing Neptunes beat.
“What More Can I Say” has numerous lines that are now famous. As Jay balances braggadocio with matter-of-fact confidence, he drops lines like, “I'm not a biter, I'm a writer for myself and others / I say a B.I.G. verse, I'm only Bigging up my brother / Bigging up my borough--I'm big enough to do it / I'm that thorough, plus I know my own flow is foolish / So them rings and things you sing about, bring em out / It's hard to yell when the barrel's in your mouth.” The first half is to silence the haters, like Nas who posed the question, “How much of Biggie's rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips?” The latter portion became the basis for T.I.’s gold single “Bring Em Out” a year later.
“Encore” sticks mainly to the concept of this being his last record, but execution is perfect over the Kanye West instrumental. “Change Clothes” is a light-hearted, funky cut by Hov and the Neptunes that foreshadows Pharrell’s foray into the disco-minded pop music he’s delivered on cuts like “Happy” and “Blurred Lines.”
“Moment of Clarity” recreates the magic that Eminem and Jay Z had on “Renegade,” and although Eminem doesn’t deliver a verse this time around, his production is the perfect canvas for one of Jay’s illest paintings to date. Beginning with a clever chorus that namedrops each of his album, Jay proceeds to deliver three of the album’s illest verses on the same track. The second verse stands as some of his best words to date:
“Music business hate me cause the industry ain't make me
Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be making
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell "holla"
If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be
Lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill' - I ain't been rhyming like Common since
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustling since your inception
Fuck perception. Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I'm up against
We as rappers must decide what's most important
And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win/win
So next time you see the homey and his rims spin
Just know my mind is working just like them”
“Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “99 Problems” were the second and third singles from the album, and carry the same swagger. “Threat” was 9th Wonder’s big break at the time, an experience he opened up about with Revolt TV back in 2013. “Justify My Thug” was a good decade ahead of its time, as cats like Vic Mensa and D.R.A.M. release modern, similar-sounding music in this current era. DJ Quik’s synth-heavy production sampled Run DMC and a lush vocal chorus, rendering it unlike anything else on the album or the airwaves at the time.
“Lucifer” samples the legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and the work he did with Max Romeo on “Chase The Devil.” Kanye’s ability to repurpose a sample in a fresh new way is one of his many skills, and even Jay commends him at the beginning of this track with, “Kanyeezy you did it again, you a genius!”
“My 1st Song” closes the album on the type of high note that catches the president’s attention. No, seriously, Obama said of the track, “It’s a great song. It reminds you that you always have to stay hungry.” You don’t just catch the president’s attention on a whim. Jay Z, with The Black Album especially, captivated not just the rap industry, but the entire world at large. He proved just how big a hip hop album can be. Every song is a classic, and the record has had a massive influence leading all the way up to present day. There’s dozens of “99 Problems” knock-off shirts, for example. Tracks like “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” are engrained in American culture.
Along with Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint, The Black Album is widely considered to be in the top three records that Jay Z has created. That’s not just our opinion either, it’s Jay’s too. Like Michael Jordan, Hov rose to the occasion to make his ‘last’ shot at the championship a winning effort. Of course, also like MJ, he came back to dish out an effort that didn’t match up to the original, and, like MJ, didn’t have the best luck with owning a sports team.
However, we’ll always remember Jay Z the musician more than Jay Z the entrepreneur. No matter how many business ventures he partakes in, he’ll always be the dude who’s “everywhere, you ain't never there.” As he enters a new chapter of his life with a child and the baddest chick in the game, it’s nice to reflect on how he got here: by releasing perfect hip hop records.