‘The Black Album’, released on November 14th, 2003, still matters. Look back at the last decade’s roster of hip-hop heavyweights and its maker, Brooklyn bad boy turned multimedia entrepreneur Shawn Carter, stands proud as a legitimate kingpin. The “best rapper alive”? The “motherf*cking greatest”? Hardly. But few of the man’s (once-) peer-level MCs successfully spread themselves across so many commercial avenues with such incredible success.
Jay Z is a self-made millionaire. He realised his ambitions, and some. Like The Notorious B.I.G., RZA and so many more talents to emerge in the early-to-mid 1990s, he cast aside a criminal past to make good with his music, ultimately taking it to the global stage. He’s benefitted from timely associations – from Big Daddy Kane to Foxy Brown, Kanye West to Pharrell Williams – and publicity-piquing feuds in his time: a pathetic spat with Nas stands out. But it’s Carter’s expert management of these situations that got him to the point, in 2003, where he’d achieved enough to split from spitting.
‘The Black Album’ was intended as the end, so it pulled no punches. Jigga was at the peak of his powers, flowing prose with a palpable confidence – throughout, he inflates his own ego to incredible proportions while offering influential credit where it’s due, via samples, to Run-D.M.C., Biggie and UGK. He assembled a production entourage that, today, would cost an impossible amount of money to bring together: Timbaland, 9th Wonder, Eminem, Just Blaze, Rick Rubin, DJ Quik, Kanye West, The Neptunes… Nobody big, then.
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Jay Z, 'Dirt Off Your Shoulder'
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The final track here, ‘My 1st Song’, is just the end credits for a career: “I’m about to go golfin’,” he says. From the studio to the 18th hole, time was right for a change. Until the golf got boring, anyway: just three years after ‘The Black Album’, almost to the day, Jigga’s ninth album, his ‘comeback’, was released. But ‘Kingdom Come’ marks the beginning of a slide from critical acclaim; a slide that ensures that ‘The Black Album’ remains his greatest on-record achievement.
Jay’s is a slide that’s dipped so low that the most interesting aspect of 2013’s tired-sounding ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ LP (Clash review) is that it was released in conjunction with a smartphone and accompanying app. We saw it coming, though – nothing since ‘The Black Album’ has had the same passion to it, the same meticulous quality control.
2009’s ‘The Blueprint 3’ traded its makers streetwise roots for the maximum mainstream reach possible, the end result a smorgasbord of sound-alike pop-rap makeweights. His full-length Kayne collaboration, 2011’s ‘Watch The Throne’, came out as a decidedly scattershot experience: even at 46 minutes it felt too long, forgettable collaborations with La Roux’s Elly Jackson and Swizz Beatz sagging the record’s mid-section, taking the shine off early highs like the breathless ‘N****s In Paris’ and the Frank Ocean-featuring ‘No Church In The Wild’.
Listen to ‘The Black Album’ today and it’s still brilliant. Its hit rate is impressive: ‘What More Can I Say’ flows into ‘Encore’; the Eminem-helmed ‘Moment Of Clarity’ is a dramatic biographical adventure through Jay’s passage to his superstar present; and the Kanye-produced ‘Lucifer’ rides Max Romeo’s ‘Chase The Devil’ like the Upsetters-backed original was crafted exclusively for this use.
And it’s ‘Lucifer’ that marks a very key moment in modern rap’s history: the moment where the student became the master. In 2003, Kayne West was adding the final touches to his own debut album, ‘The College Dropout’. ‘Lucifer’ is his only production credit on ‘The Black Album’, having chalked up five on 2001’s ‘The Blueprint’ and another three on that album’s next-year sequel. His own star was ascending, and rapidly too – ‘The College Dropout’ would beat ‘The Black Album’ to a Grammy in 2004.
Look at each artist’s 2013 output – Yeezy’s shit-is-bananas ‘Yeezus’ (Clash review) and the aforementioned ‘Magna Carta…’ – and the more creatively ambitious collection is pretty obvious. Kanye’s maintained his desire for deconstructing the possibilities of his craft, while his former employer’s got fat feasting on complacency.
Time’s not been so kind to a few tracks on ‘The Black Album’. ‘Justify My Thug’ just plods, depressingly, too reliant on its Madonna sample to stand out as a creation on its own terms. And… oh what the hell, let’s skin a sacred cow.
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Jay Z, '99 Problems'
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In your head, ‘99 Problems’ is a straight banger. Throw that on in the club and the crowd goes wild, right? For a while, sure. But for a song clocking in at under four minutes in length, ’99 Problems’ doesn’t half drag its heels for its second half. Get it mixed out, into something with a little more fire in its gut, quick.
Perhaps it’s Rick Rubin’s methodical production, its mechanical feel, but compare ‘99 Problems’ to 9th Wonder’s ‘Threat’ – two songs earlier in the album’s sequencing – and it’s the R Kelly-sampling offering by the lesser-known producer that has the more evergreen ‘organic’ feel, even with its dated Face/Off lyricism. ‘99 Problems’ is the noughties’ own ‘Push It’: starts brilliantly, but chugs to an underwhelming beat by its midway point.
‘The Black Album’ finds its maker completely full of himself – the upbringing-nostalgic ‘December 4th’ would be completely cringeworthy if Jay hadn’t had the amazing career to support its gooey storytelling. But this man had earned the right to blow smoke up his own ass before stepping into the corporate world. That he had to return to rhyming suggests an appetite for his art that’ll never quite be sated – but that he’s yet to come close to eclipsing this statement of power is perhaps illustrative of someone with too many plates spinning.
He could do with kicking some over. Let them fall, and sample them smashing. And then get some young, hungry producer – like Kanye was back when – to build something beautiful from the carnage. And that’s why ‘The Black Album’ matters the most: its legacy is to serve as a permanent reminder that this man can do so much better than what’s come since.
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Listen to 'The Black Album' in full via Deezer, below...