DAR Hip Hop: Jay-Z's The Black Album

By @CherchezLaPorsh

1. Interlude 
2. December 4th 
3. What More Can I Say
4. Encore
5. Change Clothes 
6. Dirt Off Your Shoulder 
7. Threat 
8. Moment of Clarity 
9. 99 Problems 
10. Public Service Announcement (Interlude)
11. Justify My Thug 
12. Lucifer
13. Allure 
14. My 1st Song 

I don’t think hip hop or even the world has seen anyone quite like Jay-Z. This is someone who embraced his humble beginnings in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the Marcy Housing projects. He attributes a lot of his learning and his entire rap career around growing up there. From a young age, Jay wrote lyrics, free-styled, created “kitchen table” beats and hung around those who would help develop his musical interests into a talent. It was living in Marcy and attending high school in Brooklyn that allowed Jay to meet BIG and Busta...but it was when he met Jaz-O (who is his mentor and who he credits for his introduction to hip hop/rap) that he started taking rap seriously and began developing his rhyming skills.

As I’m sure many already know, before Jay was JAY...he was kind of a “hype man” (or a filler act) when Big Daddy Kane would perform shows, and from there his exposure to the industry snowballed. He began appearing on tracks, dropping verses here and there until his solo debut in ’96 when “Reasonable Doubt” was created. I remember when that album dropped, it was an incredible addition to the year but it was hugely under appreciated as was Jay himself. There was no track that got a ton of radio play so for a short time, Jay went unnoticed.

I wish I could talk about the details of Jay’s climb to success and how he became such a powerhouse but that would be 25 pages and an abridged version of his book “Decoded” so instead let's fast forward to 2003. By the time 2003 rolled around he had been in the music game officially for 7 years and his success was shocking but very much deserved. Before we knew it, Jay-Z was a household name and a global phenomenon. However, ’03 would prove to be a milestone in his professional life as things were just starting to manifest themselves. Jay had announced his (solo) music retirement with the release of “The Black Album” and as much as we worried that he’d be done with music, the following years would prove otherwise. Jay focused his efforts on growing as an entrepreneur and making moves which would cement him as a top tier business man. On the music side, we would see 2 collaborative albums and a documentary film as well. Jay was nowhere near retiring, but let’s get back to what started it all....

Personally, “The Black Album” is my favorite in his entire catalog (on par with “Reasonable Doubt”). The tracklist is short, each song (besides maybe one) is either fun or thought provoking (or both, but what we can be assured of is each track is absolutely filled to the brim with Jay’s personality, his incredible flow, his brilliant wordplay, some of the best beats ever, and of course, instant classics. In this album he made sure to have about a dozen producers, some incredible samples and of course substance. Let’s take a look at the album that was intended to be his last...

Normally I would say “Jay started off this album with...”, but that would be inaccurate. The album starts off with an introduction that Jay wasn’t even a part of. Just Blaze wrote it, he narrated it and he created the beat for it. Personally I like the approach as it sounds like Jay is being introduced in a ceremony type fashion and is perfectly in line with the whole “retiring” thing. The beat is psychedelic and builds to a climactic point so somewhere along the way paying attention to what’s being said is a bit of a struggle. Upon closer listen, we hear the wisdom and gemlike concepts. When he says “I learned that all things must come to an end, it is an inevitable part of the cycle of resistance, all things must conclude” and then throws in “take the analogy of a tree that grows in Brooklyn” right there he’s managed to reference greek philosophers and the book Jay refers to in “The Blueprint 2”. In just over a minute, we’re already marinating. Another interesting thought that came to me some time after Jay came out of “retirement” is that this is purposefully called “Interlude”...it’s an intermission, a hiatus with intent to resurface, so for those of us who really thought he’d be gone, we should have paid closer attention!

Once we finish listening to “ends” and “conclusions”, we get “December 4th” which is Jay’s birthday... the beginning. This track is incredible conceptually, it’s really a five minute autobiography of Jay’s life from birth to present day done in sequential order. I think what made it so great is really because of the collective; Just Blaze on production sampling The Chi-Lites to give us the majestic beat we hear and then Gloria Carter’s telling of his birth and then Jay’s verses serve as the biography part. We know Jay-Z isn’t the most open MC about his personal life or childhood and he never gives us too much vulnerability or emotion, but there are some laced throughout this track which is nice, it’s a connectivity piece and definitely makes Jay more “human” so to speak. Another great thing is the wordplay we know we can expect from Jay is also weaved in. Here take a look:

“I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adaness Revees/
Who made love under the Siccamore tree/ 
Which makes me a more sicker M.C./
And my momma would claim/
At 10 pounds when i was born, I didn't give her no pain/”

“Was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared/
I went to school got good grades could behave when i wanted/
But I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted/”

“Plus I hit my momma with cash from a show that I had/
Supposedly knowing nobody paid Jaz wack ass/
I'm getting ahead of myself, by the way, I could rap/
That came second to me movin this crack/”

“And this was the stress I live with til I decided/
To try this rap shit for a living/
I pray I'm forgiven/
For every bad decision I made/
Every sister I played/”

This track has it all, truth, vulnerability, emotion and ownership. For the first time, we hear his family member on a track and instantly there’s an appreciation from the fans that Jay chose to share this so openly.

The third track on this album is “What More Can I Say”...I think he outdid himself on this track. I have to appreciate the production on this because we have The Buchanans to thank for it all. I don’t know where Jay found these guys, but I’m so thankful he did. The use of Russell Crowe’s monologue to the crowd from the Gladiator is probably the best and most fitting use of a sample ever. In the movie, Maximus is like the hidden titan, he’s judged based on his appearance and his meek and humble mannerisms are misleading. IMO this mirrors Jay, he sort of the underdog who managed to succeed so far beyond what anyone would have thought. We’ll take a look at some snippets of the lyrics, but this track is essentially Jay on some braggadocio which is understandable. Seven years and 9 albums later, the guy has every right to boast his greatness. Here are my favorite bars:

“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/”

“I don't mean to boast, but damn if i don't brag/
Them crackers gonna act like i ain't on they ads/”

Another line I find pretty interesting is “And I don't wear jerseys I'm thirty plus/ Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga button ups/” as with this line Jay just showed us the maturity, growth and insight into where his mind is at. Truly a perfect fit for this album.

Track 4 we have "Encore"...one of my favorites and probably the reason why some people started doubting the genuineness of Jay's retirement. Before I get into all the subtleties or obvious bars that support the doubts, let's talk about production. This is the first Kanye West produced track on the album and to say it was brilliant is an understatement. He samples John Holt's cover of the Beatles song "I Will" from 1976 which is the instrumental loop we hear with the strong presence of trumpets as John Legend and about 3 other people provide the vocals on this. What a perfect pairing because Jay's rapping sounds absolutely phenomenal against it. Much like the track right before it, there's a feeling of triumph and success, but I also love the way Jay "sighs" at the end of the each verse, almost like he's frustrated at the obviousness of what he's saying. Again, Jay knows his greatness, he knows there's no one better than him and he's not afraid to speak on it. He starts off by saying "thank you, thank you you're far too kind" and gets right into it. Here are my favorites:

"Who you know fresher than Hov? riddle me that/
The rest of y'all know where I'm lyrically at/
Can't none of y'all mirror me back/
Yeah, hearing me rap, is like hearing G Rap in his prime" 

"Who you gon' find doper than him with no pen just draw off inspiration" 

And the line that raised so many doubts about the retirement:

"To be at an all-time high, perfect time to say goodbye/
When I come back like Jordan, wearin the 4-5/
It ain't to play games witchu"

And sure enough we would learn that he would come back after a 3 year long hiatus. Regardless, this made for a dope track and some even better lyrics. Hov can do no wrong and this is a testament to that.

Next track Hov throws The Neptunes on production and they create a song that doesn't quite fit the theme or the concept and is ok at best. "Change Clothes" feat. Pharrell is one of those songs you either love or you hate, there's not much of an in between. I'm a fan of The Neptunes, but I'm not a fan of this song. I love that they make beats specifically for certain artists so there's always something unique that comes out of it. I like that Jay uses their talents but what I don't like is the overall song. It's a little too slow, a little too off the main theme and it doesn't fit the overall concept of the album. The first verse is great and Jay sticks to the "I'm the greatest" lyrics, but by the second verse it's taken a different route and I've lost interest. I could do without this track because it's the only reason I can't call the album perfect.

Next up we have "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and thank God we are back to the upbeat tempo and dope lyrics. This track flows so well and the content coupled with the beat production makes it so cohesive and each works to highlight the other. I wouldn't expect anything less from Timbaland. He absolutely kills it. For those who remember the craze it started upon its release, this track is what we have to thank for both the men and women feeling like pimps. There is no way you could go to a club and not hear this while strangers would walk up to each other and pretend to dust dirt off each other's shoulders. Yeah, Jay started that! Aside from the fun side of it, I do have to appreciate the lyrics. "Middle finger to the law nigga, gripping my balls" is like the Jay-Z version of "Fuck the police" and it works!! I feel like Jay has fun with this and in turn makes us have fun with it. It's full of energy and such a great addition to the tracklist.

At the midway point, we have "Threat", and this is another great song that doesn't get enough credit. With 9th Wonder on production utilizing sample cuts from R. Kelly's "A Women's Threat" and Cedric The Entertainer as the voice of the "threat", conceptually this song is pure genius and the beat definitely adds to that! Jay has successfully made a threat a tangible thing by giving it a voice and creating a perspective for it. It helps that we hear ad-libs throughout the song and of course lyrically he doesn't hold back, so it drives the point home. From the jump he says:

"I done told you niggas 9 albums stop fucking with me.....you niggas must got 9 lives"  

I love the use of "9" considering the producer and of course the crazy amount of meaning laced in there... and of course Jay's wordplay is a highlight. I appreciate how he calls out other artists by name dropping. He uses the wealth of Warren Buffett and his modest approach despite the money, and the anti-rap lyric views of both Delores Tucker and Bill O'Reilly. It's clever what Jay is doing, he's built a narrative of "threats" towards others, supports it with some examples and also applies it to himself as well so the entire thing is pretty impressive. Here's what I mean:

"Rehabilitated, man I still feel hatred/
I'm young black and rich so they wanna strip me naked/
But,You never had me like Christina Aguiler-y/
But catch me down the Westside, drivin like Halle Berry/"

"You can't kill me, I live forever through these bars, 
I put the wolves on ya/
I put a price on your head/
The whole hood'll want ya/
You starting to look like bread/"

And then the chorus:

"I make 'em wait for you 'til five in the morning/
Put your smarts on the side of your garment/
Nigga stop fuckin with me...
R. -- I. -- P/."

I hadn't heard a song quite as dark as this coming from Jay, so for me I think it shows a nice range. This is probably the most underrated track on this whole album and the lack of receptivity is heavily misplaced IMO. There are some gems for sure, but I think it's the overall concept that shows its brilliance.

Finally, my favorite track on this album and maybe in Jay's whole entire catalog. "Moment Of Clarity" I think it's this track that made me appreciate Jay so much more than I already had. To me this is the perfect song, but before I get into the nitty gritty of it let me start with production. Jay and Eminem are reunited after "the Blueprint" album, but this time he has Luis Resto (who usually helps shape Em's production). Em's contribution is incredible and the beat selection for this is flawless. It's just enough to give Jay something to rap against, but the simplicity of the beat really allows Jay to shine. As for lyrics, I can never say enough. This track is profound insight and pure self-reflection. He really gives us a rundown of everything, sort of an extension of "December 4th", but a more mature outlook and a much clearer understanding. As a fan, How can you not like it? And what more can you ask for? This is more vulnerability, more emotion and a ton of thought provoking bars. And if that wasn't enough the relatability is also appreciated, usually it's difficult to relate to specific (street life) experiences unless you've been in the exact situation and while this song references those aspects, it also talks about family, friendships and honor, which allows a wider audience to relate to it. And just when you think Jay is done, he drops a line for BIG which is always appreciated and something Jay did in previous albums as well as interviews. He constantly mentions BIG and keeps his memory going through his music. Like I said, I can't ever say enough positivity about this song. Every line, every word and every beat is perfectly put together to give us what I consider the best track on this entire album. Before I move on...here are my favorite lines:

"From my Blueprint beginnings/
To that Black Album ending/
Listen close you hear what I'm about/
Nigga feel my truths"

"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/"

"My balls and my word is all I have/
What you gonna do to me?
Nigga scars'll scab/
What you gonna box me homie?
I can dodge and jab/
Three shots couldn't touch me,
Thank God for that/
I'm strong enough to carry Biggie Smalls on my back/
And the whole BK nigga holla back/"

Such a perfect song! After that thought provoking one, we have "99 Problems" which is another incredible track, but for different reasons. On production we have Rick Rubin... although I don't prefer him as a producer at all, it was a smart business move for Jay seeing as though Rubin is so heavily involved with Def Jam and so closely connected to Russell Simmons. On the lyrical side, if Jay did anything right with content and topic choice on this album, it's here. There's a harsh reality that has always been the case with African American people and specifically men and the injustices they face and ever since the late '80's, rappers have always either addressed it or alluded to it and Jay has followed suit. The beat is aggressive compared to anything we've heard so far and I think that's very fitting. What I appreciate the most is Jay's cocky approach to the problems he so cleverly states. Take a look at these:

"I don't know what you take me as/
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has/
I'm from rags to riches nigga I ain't dumb/
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one/
Hit me"

"Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four/
License and registration and step out of the car/
Are you carrying a weapon on you I know a lot of you are/
I ain't stepping out of shit all my papers legit/
Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit/
Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back/
And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that/"

And of course, this has one of the catchiest choruses of any song but with that Jay got a lot of heat. I remember he was on Oprah one time some years back and she was lecturing him on his use of the word "bitch". She was speaking in general, but we see it reoccur so much on this track and conveniently, Jay addresses this in his book "Decoded" saying:

"In this, the use of bitch is a female dog, the K-9 cop". 

 His ability to place words and leave it to interpretation is dope and I also appreciate it specifically on "99 Problems"

Next, we have the second interlude that really is considered a song. Of course I'm talking about "Public Service Announcement". What I've learned is that Jay does interludes very different than any other artist, so with this we get what I consider a short track. My second favorite on this album, but the best song to hear live! Much like "Moment Of Clarity", I can't say enough about this, but before I let all the lyrics do the talking, I do want to say Just Blaze is on production for the second time and he truly makes this feel like a empowering speech from the times of Martin or Malcolm. I love everything about this because as soon as Jay opens his mouth a cluster of diamonds spill out... here take a look (and please note the clever wordplay and double entendres):

"I use to move snowflakes by the o-z/
I guess even back then you can call me/
CEO of the R-O-C/ Hov!"

"I be the music biz number one supplier/
Flyer than the piece of paper bearing my name/
I got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain/"

As we approach the end of the album at track 11, we hear "Justify My Thug" which is a DJ Quik production. Jay wanted variation so he had a different producer on every track and Quik is the infusion of west coast. The beat is bouncy, engaging and just overall dope. Jay flows so well with it. Although Jay always has something meaningful and insightful to say, he does it and we don't even realize it. Jay has one of my favorite rap flows and deliveries ever and IMO this track showcases it so well. This track is just so easy to listen to, it's insanely engaging and without even realizing it, listeners are hooked. Absolutely incredible and of course he drops gem after gem within his amazing wordplay ability. Check this out:

"I never asked for nothing I don't demand of myself/
Honesty, loyalty, friends and then wealth/
Death before dishonor and I tell you what else/
I tighten my belt 'fore I beg for help/
Foolish pride is what held me together through the years"

"Now if you shoot my dog, I'ma kill yo' cat/
Just the unwritten laws in rap - know dat/
For every action there's a reaction/ 
Don't have me relapsing/" 

"I am the Michael Schumacher of the Roc roster/
Travellin Mach 5/
Barrelin, my power can stop God/
God forgive me but I can't let them deliver me/ 
To you, until, I won this race, then eventually/"

The references to "Schumacher", "Mach 5" and "winning this race" are so dope and why I also appreciate this song so much!

Next track is "Lucifer", which is another profound track. Kanye is the producer so we are guaranteed incredible beats and perfect loops that are going to bring this to life! This track has everything, from lighthearted references to Sanaa Lathan and D'Angelo to the entities of Lucifer, God and the battle between good and evil, Jay really conveys the internal struggle well. I like track placement also, considering this is almost the end of the album, we've followed the story track by track until this point so when Jay says "Lord forgive him/ he got them dark forces in him/ but he also got a righteous cause for sinning/" or "Jesus I ain't trying to be facetious/ but vengeance is mine said the lord/ you said it better than all/", we can understand where this is coming from. And of course in this song too, Jay manages to subtly reference BIG which is always appreciated. Clearly there's a whole lot of biblical references, but choosing "Lucifer" as the personification of "darkness" is impressive. Since lucifer is never directly identified as the Devil in Christian scripture, it's left up for interpretation. Whether you consider Lucifer a fallen angel or the devil, there's definitely enough in this song to keep you pondering. Once again, Jay has managed to provoke thought and instill some insight which is never a bad thing.

The second to last track, number 13 is "Allure" and is perfect placement to come after "Lucifer", it's almost like an extension of it. This track is basically talking about the allure of crime, wealth, fame, success...anything that could draw someone back in. The first few lines of the first verse speak to that:

"The allure of breaking the law/
Is always too much for me to ever ignore/
I gotta thing for them big body Benzes/
It dulls my senses/
In love with a V-Dub engine/
Man I'm high off life, fuck it I'm wasted"

Overall, I like this song and I think it fits in very well with the running theme and "last album" concept Jay was going for. Were there a lot of quotable lines that resonate with listeners? Not really, but for the duration of the song it's incredibly engaging and enjoyable.

Interestingly enough the last song on the album is "My 1st Song" and of course Jay does this on purpose. The play on the title is known from the jump. Anytime an artist can throw off "order" to reinforce their intended point I appreciate it, and that's what Jay has done here. This was taken from an interview with BIG that appears on the introduction of the song where BIG says "treat everything like it's your first project....like it's your first day.....just stay hungry". Jay definitely took that and literally executed a project exactly in line with that. This is easily the best most effective way to end an album, to have this be the last track on your last album titled your "1st song" and it is just a play on everything: words, concepts and emotions! Another thing I love is that the beat tempo is faster and Jay's rapping follows suit. It's a different song entirely but somehow brings the entire album full circle. Absolutely brilliant and a fantastic way to end.

By the time "The Black Album" was released, we had already seen eight albums from Jay. Each one appealing to a larger audience and incorporating a subtle but new element to his existing style. It's no wonder Jay is widely considered one of the most consistent rappers with the most extensive and solid catalog of all time. Much like the advice from his mentors, he treated every project like it's his last and gave us endless hits, boatloads of lyrical gems and tons of insight and wisdom. It's no surprise and no wonder that Jay has gone on to dominate not only the rap industry, but the corporate world as well. Personally I attribute a large amount of Jay's entrepreneurial successes to this album. Once he released "The Black Album", he put everything he had into it and was able to pursue his ventures with a clear mind knowing the hip hop world had been given one his best projects. As much as I love all of Jay-Z's albums prior to this, I find there was so much more of himself put into this one. I appreciate that this album exists in hip hop and I'm glad the retirement was short lived. There's no way hip hop could do without Jay, he's vital to the culture and a true gem!



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