The Album List #21: Jay-Z “The Black Album”

He’s the Poet Laureate of Hip Hop.

Hip hop and I were born around the same time. We grew up together. We once trawled disco beats before discovering life was hard and listening to new music that felt as alienated and angry as we were. There were moments of sweetness, moments of pain, and a lot of fantastic music. But it wasn’t until much, much later, as we both approached our early twenties, where we found our true soulful voices.

Hip hop came of age in the early 1990s, but it’s true blood masterpieces came a decade later. And sitting above it all is the true lyrical king of all, Mr. Shawn Carter.

Both musically and verbally literate, he has created some of the greatest hip hop albums in history. While I can accept any one of them as being called his finest moment, there is something about the jigsaw nature of The Black Album that appeals to me. He used a different producer on every track, allowing for each to lay down a unique signature, and ultimately show Jay-Z can rap over anything. It’s takes a special type of rapper to pull it off, and Hova doesn’t let you forget it. The album samples more standard fare like the Chi-Lites and MFSB, reggae artist John Holt, and even Jay himself. Then there are samples from Mountain, Madonna, and Billy Squier. It’s a hodgepodge, but it’s hodgepodge that works on every level.

The Black Album at the time was meant to be the end of the man as performer. He was meant to retire. Fortunately, he didn’t ( later albums are equally magnificent).  The album therefore feels a little odd in a way. Jay-Z is rapping like it’s the end. A song like “Encore” feels lighter simply because he feels freer. He sees the end. While the album track here floats on Kanye West’s fantastic production, and as much as I adore its old school feel, I feel this track pales in comparison to the mixtape/other official version created by nu metal hybrids Linkin Park’s brilliant mash-up with their own “Numb” that appeared on Collision Course. You have to be amazed that both versions speak to the man.

His ability to spit out lyrics that are both egomaniacal and reflective is unprecedented, and rappers like Kanye try to emulate them at their peril.  Jay knows just how good he is, but he also knows how un-fucking-believably lucky he is. He holds no illusions of entitlement. He earned every success. He can turn around and see the haters, but his life has told him that hard work gets rewarded.

The mood on the album veers from celebratory to difficult. He’s never been the most cheerful man. Playing the hustla is tiresome, and he does sometimes fall into victimization. If you can name one big name rapper who hasn’t at some point, I’ll tell you that you have Biz Markie.

He laments the changes he made to please his growing audience, while still catering to that audience. Crowd pleasing singles like “Change Clothes” though are tempered with the hard-hitting “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, a masterpiece of the highest order. Over a driving staccato Timbaland beat, the King of New York dismisses his critics with a simple gesture. If you’re feeling like a pimp, go brush your shoulders off. ( Yes, Jay’s frequent use of the n-word does cause my bleeding liberal heart grief, but I cannot dictate what this man says, just how I interpret it.)

But even more impressive, even to my feminist ears, is the harsh and honest “99 Problems”. I love this song so much. The last great thing Rick Rubin is responsible for, the minimalist hard rock beats are matched by fantastically realism in Jay’s lyrics. I believe him when he says he doesn’t mean bitch in the way we tend to think. Even if he did, he’s married to Beyonce. He’s right. Women ain’t his problem. In the video, Rubin appears as the rapper goes down in a hail of bullets.  Fitting.

The album is an excellent example of one particular moment in time, but the overreaching influences of those moments keep resonating. Jay-Z of course never retired. He’s currently playing elder statesman and still making relevant music. During the last Presidential election, then Candidate Obama, the first man running who was a product of hip hop, got some dirt off his shoulder, igniting a firestorm of criticism, but gaining new fans.

And of course, the man knocked up Beyonce.

Jay-Z recognized his influence better than most. He sees what he has wrought. And damn it, he’s proud of himself.




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