Shawn Corey Carter is one of the smartest men in the hip-hop business. Actually, he’s quite possibly the
smartest man in the hip-hop industry, bar none. I mean, for Carter to rise from humble rap beginnings under his stage name of Jay-Z, to becoming the President of Def Jam records and CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, is pretty damn impressive. Carter probably realized that not everyone has a long-winded run in the music business, and thus, became a veritable entrepreneur, securing his own financial freedom and influence, as well as launching the careers of some of the most successful artists to hit the scene in the last few years. However, despite all this success, many people believed that by the turn of the century Jay-Z as a musical artist was down and out. And so, critics and fans alike were shocked when he released The Blueprint
in 2001. Widely considered to be his strongest album, The Blueprint
achieved impressive commercial success, and even managed to grab a spot on Rolling Stone
’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. However, as appealing as The Blueprint
was to some, it’s follow-up, 2002‘s The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse
was quite the opposite. The album’s main critiscms stemmed from it’s extremely pop-oriented feel, and rapid departure from Jay-Z’s much heavier earlier works. Once again, Jay-Z as a rapper became a severe underdog. One year later, though, he was back on top of the world, having just released The Black Album
. With this new record, “Jigga” seemed to have discovered the perfect balance between his gangsta rap past, and his pop-laden present. So, I’d say that it’s a fair assumption to state that Jay-Z is the smartest man in rap.
Actually, he describes himself rather well in his interpretation of Ice-T
’s “99 Problems”:
I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that wanna make sure my casket's closed
Rap critics they say he's "Money Cash Hoes"
I'm from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those
If you grew up with holes in ya zapatos
You'd be celebrating the minute you was havin' dough
I'm like f*ck critics you can kiss my whole asshole
If you don't like my lyrics you can press fast forward
I got beef with radio if i don't play they show
They don't play my hits well I don't give a sh*t so
Rap mags try and use my black a*s
So advertisers can give 'em more cash for ads, f*ckers
I don't know what you take me as,
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has
I'm from rags to ritches niggas I ain't dumb
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Not only does Jay-Z give “99 Problems” a whole new hard rock-esque makeover, he also applies it to himself, and hits the nail right on the head. “99 Problems” is one of the strongest hip-hop songs of recent times, and it proves that Jay-Z can still hang with the best of them.
But how does the rest of the album stand up? It’s been an unfortunate trend in recent years for rappers to build their albums around two or three extremely powerful songs, while essentially using all the other tracks as filler. This, however, is not the case with The Black Album
. The record delivers quality from end-to-end, with little or no faltering. Sure, some songs are better than others, but every album has it’s ups and downs, even masterpieces. The Black Album
is still a refreshingly consistent album, and should serve as an example on how to make a 21st century mainstream hip-hop album.
Jay-Z’s delivery remains as strong as ever. He’s the king of the hip-hop world, and he knows it. You can almost feel it in the swaggering, yet commanding tone of his voice. Jay-Z’s rhymes are tight, and constant; he never misses a beat. If anyone could have doubted what his is still capable of doing, I’d be willing to wager quite a bit that they’re eating crow after hearing The Black Album
. As if the fact that his vocal triumphs weren’t enough, The Black Album
features some of Jay-Z’s best lyrical moments. Take the chorus lines from single “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” for example:
If you feelin’ like a pimp nigga, go and brush your shoulders off/Ladies is pimps too, go and brush your shoulders off/Niggaz is crazy baby, don't forget that boy told you/Get that dirt off your shoulder
“Ladies is pimps too.” How many times has a rapper asserted something like that? On The Black Album
, Jay-Z combines street-style and pop-aesthetic wordplay together, to create a sound that is both highly accessible, and highly immersive. As for said immersive aspect of The Black Album
, you have the tranquil tale of temptation and regret that is “Allure.”
It's just life, I solemnly swear/To change my approach, stop shavin’ coke/Stay away from hoes, put down the toast/Cause I be doin’ the most.. oh no!/But every time I felt that was that, it called me right back/It called me right back, man it called me right back - oh no!
Jigga appears to be conflicting with his inner demons, judging by that lyrics sheet. “Allure” is a fine example of the brilliant genre fusions that can be found on The Black Album
. It has a very serene feel to it, and manages to maintain its pop roots, yet still gives off a feeling of hip-hop majesty. One of the best songs on the album, to be sure.
So, The Black Album
has great vocals and intelligent, well-constructed lyrics, but how does the music sound? This is where the record’s greatest strengths comes into play: production value. You see, almost every song on The Black Album
was overseen by a different producer. These range from eager young protégés of Jay-Z’s (Kanye West
, who has since, made quite a name for himself) to seasoned veterans (Rick Rubin; The Neptunes). The overall effect of having so many hands work on the album makes for a very unique experience. Each song maintains a certain sense of individuality, yet still feels similar enough to its peers to remain coherent. The variety of samples, beats, and all-out instrumentation on The Black Album
makes the record sound virtuosic, yet incredibly polished. The Black Album
is a straight up example of how nearly everything can go right on a hip-hop album. We’re going to get back to that “nearly” catch a little ways down the road.
The lifeblood of the album is, unsurprisingly, its songs. On the whole, the track list is quite exceptional. You have songs like “December 4th” (Jay-Z’s birthday), which are something like history lessons to make old and new fans of his akin. “Lucifer” and “Encore” reek of Kanye’s influence, but in a good way. “Change Clothes,” the album’s first single has an exuberant feel to it, with plenty of pop hooks to spare; clearly it’s a song designed for parties and clubs. “Moment of Clarity” features some of the best rhyming on the album, giving The Black Album
due poetic justice. “What More Can I Say” begins with the defiant sounds of actor Russell Crowe shouting “Are you not entertained?” You don’t need to worry about that, Jigga: most people will not only be entertained, they’ll be slack-jawed with impress. The Black Album
is, at the core, a strong album.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to the catch: that “nearly” that I mentioned earlier. For every good respect that The Black Album
has, there’s just one little drawback that’s just significant enough to detract: the album’s flow. Things can feel just a tad too disjointed at times. This, however, is a minor quibble, and hardly depreciates the overall value of The Black Album
. It is still a very worthy way for Jay-Z to say good-bye. Oh yes, this is to be the rap megastar’s last album, according to the man himself. This point is further accentuated by the “death” of Jay-Z at the end of the “99 Problems” music video. Jay-Z couldn’t have picked a better way to go out. The Black Album
is, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, his strongest effort. If Mr. Carter decides to finally go out on those note, then he’ll be remembered two ways: as a true innovator of hip-hop as an industry, and as one kickass rapper.