"They say they never really miss you till your dead or your gone. So on that note, I'm leaving after this song . . ."
About midway through Jay-Z's highly anticipated, self-proclaimed swan song, The Black Album, Jay confesses on the aptly-titled, Eminem produced, "Moment of Clarity", that, "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be, lyrically Talib Kweli." To longtime fans of Jay's music, this admission comes as somewhat of a refreshing revelation to hear from the man's own lips. Given that hip-hop, in general, is a genre unfortunately littered with too many disposable heroes (anyone remember Fabolous? where might Chingy be in five years?), and albums which seem to be created more as products than as art, Jay-Z has always had a self-consciously difficult time on wax reconciling the hustler in him, with the auteur.
For evidence of this idea, one needs only to glance back on the reactionary pair of records that precede The Black Album. While 2001's The Blueprint was a conservative masterful mix of soul-stirring beats and Jay's own brand of agile confessional rhymes and pugilistic hubris; it's follow-up, the unexplainably titled, Blueprint 2, was a sprawling, guest-filled, double album which despite possessing a number of inspired moments, felt more like a rushed attempt at throwing the clubs some new "bangers", and capitalizing off it's predecessor's ingenuity. However, it is in this light that if The Black Album is indeed Jay's final record, he is calling it quits at the top of his artistic powers, having finally dropped a consistent album that strikes the perfect balance between the business man and the backpacker.
In other words, The Black Album is a record that is all things to all people; which, I might add, doesn't necessarily have to be seen as such a negative quality. Just as Nas will never make another Illmatic, or Wu-Tang another 36 Chambers, The Black Album inevitably is not some sort of quixotic return to the sound of Jay-Z's landmark 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, as Jay himself has hyped. However, what The Black Album turns out to be is a surprisingly meticulously constructed coda to Jay-Z's extensive and prosperous career.
The album begins with the conceptual brilliance of "December 4th", named after the day Jay was born. On the track, Jay-Z effortlessly kicks dexterous rhymes concerning everything from his problems in facing his parent's divorce, to his anger in loosing a father figure, and his frustration with his subsequent entry into the world of drug hustling. Producer extraordinaire, Just Blaze supplies Jay with a voluptuous instrumental, reminiscent of his best work off The Blueprint, weaving fertile string swells, soulful horns, and subtle guitar licks over a charmingly laidback groove. The most surprising and ingenious aspect of the song, though, would have to be the inclusion of Jay's own mother who chimes in on the choruses narrating her own fondest memories of Shawn; from giving birth to him ("He didn't give me any pain when I gave birth to him, and that's how I knew he was a special child.") to buying her son a boom box to help keep him off the streets ("That was my way to keep him close to me and out of trouble."). The track not only successfully serves to establish the predominantly nostalgic and celebratory mood of The Black Album, but it is also one of Jay-Z's most memorable songs ever.
Following off the inspirational lead of "December 4th", is the archetypical triumphant braggadocio of "What More Can I Say", where Jay somewhat vaguely proclaims that he's the "Martha Stewart whose far from Jewish", and threatens, "I'm supposed to be number one on everybody's list. Let's see what happens when I no longer exist." By the time the fantastically heady Samba horns and rolling pianos of the following number (the Kanye West produced, "Encore") emanate from the speakers, the track which is one of acclaimed West's greatest beats, and which would normally be a defining moment on most other hip-hop albums, in this context is conveyed as Jay-Z solely taunting his listeners for more applause while taking a glorious celebratory career victory lap. Ultimately, this is what has continued to make Jay so captivating over the past eight years: the fact that he makes it sound so easy.
The two most resoundingly thrilling moments of the record, though, surprisingly come from two very diametrically opposed ends of the hip-hop continuum. Budding newcomer and Little Brother production maestro, 9th Wonder, gives those Jay-Z listeners yearning from the absence of DJ Premier reason to celebrate with his Primo and Pete Rock inspired instrumental for the incendiary track, "Threat". While legendary Def Jam Records founding partner and musical guru, Rick Rubin, resurrects the elementary distortion soaked power-chords, bombastic drum-kit stomp, and insistent polyrhythmic bells that defined his '80s production for seminal hip-hop stars like Run DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys for his work on, "99 Problems". It is only more to Jay-Z's credit that in the face of instrumentals as solid as these, he still holds firm command of the spotlight. In the plotting piano bounce of "Threat", Jigga hysterically boasts, "I will kill you, commit suicide, and then kill you again," while in the rollicking din of "99 Problems", Jay-Z kicks three different versus, each one using the word, "bitch", in a different context; in the first verse he implies stress, in the second, a dog, and in the third, being "soft".
The only true weak points of the album are the lame Dj Quick produced, "Justify My Thug", (even the title could use help!) and the uncharacteristically bland electro-funk of the Timbaland contribution, "Dirt Off Your Shoulders". While the Neptune's two instrumentals, "Change Clothes", and "Allure", do seem like old hat (their trademark production is finally starting to verge on monotony after ruling the radio for the last five years), Jay's lyrical agility and rhythmic wordplay manages to keep them interesting.
Whether The Black Album is truly, as Jay has continuously proclaimed, his final record or not, he has most definitely constructed an inspired musical documentary of his life, as both a business man and an artist, that will last as an inspiration for emcees years in the making. While The Black Album does have the overall urgency of closure, it also possesses the celebratory spirit of more great music to come. So, it's anyone's guess as to what the future holds. However, one thing is for certain: let the inevitable onslaught of greatest hits packages and b-side collections begin.