The Black Album
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

what makes one of America’s reputedly finest MCs retire from hip-hop upon the release of his 9th LP? He’s a label CEO, one of the few consistently top sellers still retaining his street credibility, a mentor to his label mates and he gets to make sweet love to Beyonce Knowles; what more could he possibly want?

There have been undercurrents of Jay’s dissatisfaction and insecurities in the last few years, however. Listen to “Blueprint 2” (from the LP of the same name) and you can hear the weary bitterness in his voice. Jay is sick of the game; sick of always being seen as second to Nas, Biggie and Pac despite the soundscan numbers, sick of 50 stealing the limelight from him on their co-headlining tour, angry at the hypocritical flak he took over the misogynistic “Superugly” diss, cheated by the failure of Beans and Bleek to step up to the plate and insecure over his girlfriend appearing live with ladies men like Sean Paul.

Jay’s smart enough to realise that hip-hop is an incredibly unfaithful mistress and eventually he would fall foul of the fickle rise and fall of ‘what is hot’. He’s borrowed from the 2Pac mythos by attempting to create demand through faking his own demise (though, in this case, it’s a career break, not bullet ridden death). Bad move, people aren’t so dumb that they can’t distinguish between a dead person who won’t be recording again and someone promoting himself into the holy MC triptych. There will be no deification for the living; someone will be along in a minute to fill the shoes he leaves, regardless of how long they’re empty for.

And with that, The Black Album is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. The majority of the beats here are mediocre, with talented producers offering up weakened versions of their styles. Just Blaze wastes one of his chances (he pulls off the other with the fat organ of “Public Service Announcement”) and produces the cloying “December 4th” featuring Jay’s mammy telling some neither cute nor ’funny’ childhood stories in between Jay’s verses, making it sound like some abortive mini-VH1 documentary. And then to place these school sports day trumpets against the Gladiatorial fanfare of “What More Can I Say” (the obvious choice to open the LP) screams of bad sequencing. The Gladiator/hip-hop analogy is a strong one as Jay knows he’d have die to become part of the (undeserved) hip-hop Valhalla.

Kayne West, on the other hand, comes out of The Black Album smelling of roses (and $100 bills) proving that the huge buzz around his forthcoming College Dropout is well justified. Both “Lucifer” and “Encore” easily stand head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, even taking into account the latter's weak chorus. The past, where his almost symbiotic work with Timbaland and the Neptunes brought the best out of both producer and MC, is obviously gone, as the producers offer up lazy tracks which sound like poorly made clones incorporating all their trademark elements but none of the spark. “Allure” has to be one of the worst Neptunes productions ever (worse even than their “Nookie” remix!) whilst “Change Clothes” is unexceptionally sexless and balding R & B, interesting only because Lady of Rage gets a shout out. “Dirt Off Your Shoulders”, similarly, cannot be the best Timbaland had to offer- it’s just not possible. It’s boringly derivative of his past work with Jay, the drones and melody sounding eerily familiar of “Money Cash Hoes”. Underground (not for much longer) hope 9th Wonder fails to hit the mark also, but most average of all are “My First Song” where his flow is interesting, but the beats sound like incidental Miami Vice music and Quik’s “Justify My Thug” (awful awful pun), which sounds rather like a bad Madonna bootleg mash-up with an average MC riding it. Can this really be the best he was offered to rap over?

The lyrics swing from the egotistical, self-satisfied, self aggrandising to, what at least appears, something more personal and honest. Hova also seems to have cut down on the hustler/dealer narratives which powered his early work- replacing it with an album about this being his last album. Maybe this retirement is partially inspired by him having nothing new (or the same old shit) to talk about. Even Blueprint 2 seemed to be full of vague cockiness; spitting weak venom with few bites that actually punctured their targets. It’s undeniable that, technically, he is a skilled MC enforcing double-timed rhymes and changing accentuations and rhythms effortlessly. The fact remains, however, Jay is not a great lyricist and can hardly be taken seriously as an imparter of wisdom before talented entertainer (albeit one who has hit a dead end and not a career high).

Now, this is going to make me sound like a woolly liberal, and destroy my grimy credentials, but if your speech is still peppered with the term “bitch” (i.e. “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”) at 33 years old, then I’m assuming these lyrics aren’t really a distillation of his knowledge and the accumulation of what he has learnt as an artist and an adult. You can say it’s just a word, a product of his environment or a figure of speech if you like, just don’t expect me to lap up the lyrical genius when he can’t be arsed to find an alternate word or just drop the stereotypical rap speak. Although he states early on in the LP that he ‘don’t wear jerseys I’m 30 plus’, it appears that’s as far as his maturing process has actually gotten. I wonder what his dear Mama and Beyonce think about it…Oh sorry, I forgot, he’s only addressing bitches and not all women. Admittedly, he’s already got an answer for people like me on Rick Rubin’s boom-bap Beasties/Run DMC pastiche “99 Problems”: “if you don’t like my lyrics you can press fast-forward”. Fair enough, oh great debater. But add this to the weak metaphors such as “rap’s grateful dead”, “Che Guevara with bling on” and “the rap Michael Schumacher”, and they barely measure up to his brash claims of being the greatest living MC.

For further proof, check the Eminem produced "Moment of Clarity", which contains the following insight into his career plan:

"I dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollas.
They criticize me for it, but yet they all yell 'holla'.
If skills sold, truth be told
I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli.
Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense,
But I did 5 mil, I ain't been rhymin' like Common since."

Bullshit. There is no way Jay-Z ever had conscious or emotionally involving lyrics stored up somewhere, or even the inclination to rhyme like Talib can on a track like ”The Blast” or “Good Mourning”. And besides, I cannot readily praise an artist who clings to stereotype and repeats retarded rhymes album after album in order to merely shift units; to make money, readily admitting to diluting himself and becoming only concerned with shifting units. I mean, he dumbed his stuff down for you, because you’re thick as pigshit and you wouldn’t understand his intelligence, right? Keep supporting Roc-a-Fella Records, they love ya!

I believe he’ll be back for two reasons: the Roc can’t run from platinum to platinum without him, and this whole retirement is one of the finest promotional stunts ever. Up-and-comers like Freeway, Chris, Neef and Peedi Crack are only in the limelight this quickly because of their affiliation to Jay-Z. The Black Album, his intended finest moment, made at the peak of his ability to express himself, with access to the best producers in hip-hop still shows Jay without enough content to produce that definitive hip-hop classic. Better luck next time, Jay. I give him a year before the next LP. How about you?
Reviewed by: Scott McKeating
Reviewed on: 2003-11-14
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