An essential experience, and quite probably the peak of the rapper’s continuing career.
Mike Diver 2010
"This here is the victory lap, and I’m leaving…"
The Black Album was intended as the full stop on a recording career that saw Shawn Carter rise from hip hop fan in his Brooklyn home, rapping over a boombox his mother bought him (to the annoyance of his siblings), to the multi-millionaire artist known as Jay-Z. His eighth long-player in seven years, this set brought together a number of high-profile producers – Timbaland, Rick Rubin, The Neptunes, Kanye West, DJ Quik – and was presented as a triumphant parting shot. Carter was to move into the corporate world, leaving the studio behind. Of course, his retirement didn’t last – but if it had, The Black Album was a perfect sign-off.
"You’re now tuned to the mu’f***in’ greatest…"
Confrontational, aggressive, antagonistic – The Black Album is all these things, its protagonist revelling in the role of rap’s kingpin, every boastful word backed up by sales figures to make the world’s biggest stadium-rockers dizzy. Dirt Off Your Shoulder, referenced by Barak Obama during his presidential campaign, finds Jay-Z confidently calling himself the best rapper alive; Threat’s lyrical violence harks back to his gangster-themed debut, Reasonable Doubt; and Justify My Thug is full of eye-for-an-eye attitude: "If you shoot my dog, I’m’a kill your cat". Grammy-winning cut 99 Problems revisits discrimination experienced when an unknown rapper in 1994, and presents a criticism of what he saw to be racial bias in the US legal system.
"For one last time I need y’all to roar…"
As a swansong, though, Jay-Z made sure that The Black Album had its share of tracks that would sit comfortably in the clubs and charts – tracks that would reach further than the hardcore, as accessible as previous party hits like I Just Wanna Luv U and Big Pimpin’. Encore paints a picture of the artist as a contemporary James Brown, riffing on the soul legend’s live performances where an excitable compère would ask the audience if they were ready for "star time". It features live band-style instrumentation and horns aplenty, and a splendid ebullience ensures its enduring freshness. Pharrell Williams’ falsetto lends Change Clothes a sweet undercurrent, Carter switching focus from calling out his rivals to admiring the female form. And December 4th – the opener proper – is a wonderful slice of autobiographical storytelling that rides a delicious sample from 1970s soul quartet The Chi-Lites.
"I’m about to go golfin’… Might even have me a cappuccino…"
As My 1st Song closes proceedings, Jay-Z’s intentions are clear: this is it, over and out. Not because he’s tired, but because once you’ve reached the top, where next? The only way is, inevitably, down, and his albums since this haven’t been in the same league – each has its highlights, but consistency has been compromised for scattershot grandstanding. Not that recent history matters here: considered as the final chapter in the first book of Hova, The Black Album is an essential experience, quite probably the peak of the rapper’s continuing career.