TBT: Jay-Z – The Black Album (Review)

TBT-Jay-Z


Jay-z-black-albumArtist: Jay-Z

Album: The Black Album

Release Date: 14th November 2003

Firstly let’s get this out of the way, you might want to sit down. Ok yes, despite what you think Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” is better than “The Blueprint“. Yes I know, I know it hurts. You can’t understand, maybe I am insane, but not about this. Where “The Blueprint” is the album we all knew Jay could make, “The Black Album” was the album no one knew he was capable of.

2003 sees Jay-Z in a strange place. He had received critical acclaim with his album “The Blueprint“. He strayed from his mainstream singles and filler tracks, and crafted a perfect Hip-Hop record. But following the albums success he tried to recreate the magic with “The Blueprint 2” and it’s remix album. But his recent work saw Jay slowly return to the club dominating music, and none of his previous works depth. So he announced his retirement to follow his last album “The Black Album“. A final hurrah then, to cement his position as one of Hip-Hop’s greats.

The albums release was preceded by a smarter Pharrell collaboration in “Change Clothes“. A nice mature song, that praised women instead of objectifying them. A rap song for your mother if you will. Doing well on the charts, and causing no harm to Hip-Hop sensibilities, the song left me maybe a little cold and was a grower, and even when it did grow on me, I was hardly on the edge of my seat with anticipation. But still come release day I did what any self respecting rap fan would do and bought the album.

Opening with a smooth, trancy intro the album officially kicks off with Jay-Z more open more than ever before on “December 4th“. His mother tells the story of Jay-Z‘s childhood, with Jay-Z filling in the blanks. Casting a magnifying glass over the bitter moments in his life, particularly when his parents split up:

“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/”

 Jay-Z manages allow you into his world for a brief enough time that you’ll want more. For as soon as he lets his guard down, it’s back up again, never wallowing in self pity. The instrumental is uplifting and feels like naval gazing wasn’t the point.

With the few tears dried up, the album’s purpose is revealed on “What More Can I Say“. A triumphamnt instrumetal sees Jay singing his ownb praises. But this time it’s not the overly familar idle bragging. Jay makes a statement as to why he deserves your respect, even ending the song by killing the instrumental and storming out of the booth:

“But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines/ Add that to the fact i went plat a bunch of times/ Times that by my influence on pop culture/ I’m supposed to be number one on everybody’s list/ We’ll see what happens when i no longer exist/ Fuck this?”

Firmly winning just about everybody on “What More Can I Say“, Jay starts his victory lap on the Kanye produced “Encore“. Even from the opening bars the track sounds like a classic. It tellingly ends with screaming fans which cements Jay-Z as a stadium act. This song is the moment that changed Jay-Z from a successful rapper to an icon.

The album sounds like a greatest hits moving from the bleeps and deep bass of Timbaland’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” to a song like “Threat“. This song would be too dark for even “Reasonable Doubt“. Jay even asks the listener if he’s “frigthenin’ ya?” The track is vicious, as this time he’s not simply talking about the things he had to do as much as he’s revelling in it. the rarity of moments like this make it enjoyable as he’s not constantly trying to prove how tough he is. He’s simply decided at the end of his career he’s comfortable letting the mask slip. “Moment Of Clarity” is an empty, simple, thudding beat that Jay uses to air out all his greiuevances. But completely without angst, he simply runs through topics on his heart and clears the air. Moments like this appear just as strong on “Lucifer” and “Allure“, creating Jay-Z‘s most personal album yet.

What makes it the best Jay-Z album you ask? Well, firstly Jay wasn’t the first rapper to work with legendary producer Rick Rubin, but none had made an impact like “99 Problems” had for quite some time. Regardless of the brilliance of the track the song represents the ambition and scale of what Jay was attempting with “The Black Album” and completely succeeded.

Did you want old hustler Jay? got it! did you want some catchy songs, got it! Did you want him to finally get more personal and let  us in, got it! There were certainly more ambitious Hip-Hop  albums around at that time (Outkast dropped “Speakerboxxx/Love Below”, and Kanye dropped “The College Dropout” around the same time) but it certainly was the most ambitious Jay-Z album ever. How many times has “Public Service Announcement” been “remixed”. How many times have you even heard “Allow me to reintroduce myself“? “The Black Album” cemented Jay-Z as an icon. And “The Black Album” taught rappers to take the roof off the ceiling and dream bigger.

About Aaron Page

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