Ten years ago today, Jay-Z released what everyone thought would be his final recording: The Black Album. In 2003, Jay-Z was on top of the hip-hop world. His seven previous albums were all commercial successes. Two of them, his debut Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint, are still hailed as hip-hop classics to this day. He was the head of Roc-A-Fella Records, one of the most successful hip-hop labels in the world, and was the president of Def Jam. He also founded the popular clothing line Roca Wear. It seemed that everything Hov touched turned into gold. The Black Album would be no exception.
If there’s one thing that Jay-Z wants on his records, it’s a good beat. For his final album, he assembled an all-star team of producers that included Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, 9th Wonder, Timbaland, and The Neptunes. The Black Album would also be the last major recording with beats made by a young producer named Kanye West before he set the hip-hop world on fire with his own debut. With a production team like that you’d have to try really, really hard to fuck up. Luckily, they didn’t and The Black Album was one of the most well produced records of its time.
While The Black Album had a star-studded cast of producers, the marquee name on the bill was still Jay-Z, and he wasn’t about to be shown-up on his own last album. Regardless of what you think of him, there's absolutely no denying that Jay-Z is one of the greatest MC’s of all time. There isn’t a wack line on the entire record. Even the hit singles that charted well like “99 Problems” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” had nice verses. But for me, the lyrical gem of this record is a song called “Moment of Clarity.” Backed by a simple yet powerful beat produced by Eminem, Jay-Z treats listeners to a four and a half minute memoir filled with honesty. Hov discusses everything from his childhood to his reign over rap. But the line that hit me the hardest was Jay-Z confession on how dumbed down some of his lyrical content to sell records. “If skills sold truth be told I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli./Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/(but I did 5 mill) I ain’t been rhymin’ like Common since.” Unfortunately most rappers today have stuck by that mantra.
While The Black Album made a splash upon its release, I feel like I appreciate it more now, especially when comparing it to Jay-Z’s recent work. Jay-Z likes to refer to himself as the “Mike Jordan of recording,” and truth be told, he may be on to something. You see, both Hov and His Airness are both titans in their respective fields, but there’s one important thing they have in common: they fucked up perfect retirements. Even if you don’t watch basketball, you’ve probably seen MJ’s game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. It was the perfect way for the greatest basketball player who ever lived to end his career. Unfortunately, he fucked it up by coming out of retirement and suiting up for the Washington Wizards for two underwhelming seasons. Upon its release The Black Album not only topped the charts but also received universal critical acclaim. Jay-Z successfully added another classic record. But like Jordan, he came out of retirement three years later and fucked it up.
Now, some of you might be wondering why the hell it matters that Jay-Z came out of retirement. It’s a valid question. The answer is that Jay-Z hasn’t done anything worthwhile since coming back. For me, when someone comes out of retirement, regardless of their occupation, it’s because they think that they can still perform at a high level. Now let’s look at Jay-Z’s discography since he came back. First you have Kingdom Come, which was his comeback album. The reaction to Kingdom Come was lukewarm at best. I’ll admit that in recent years the album has been starting to grow on me a little. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was underwhelming, especially as a comeback record that followed The Black Album. Then came American Gangster, which was solid. Not particularly great, but solid nonetheless. Next was The Blueprint 3. Personally, I really liked The Blueprint 3, but it was no better than American Gangster. Then there’s his collaboration with Kanye West, Watch The Throne. The record was a few nice beats, but at the end of the day, it was nothing more than a glorified ode to materialism that was released at the height of the recession when no one wanted to listen to two millionaires constantly talk about how rich they are. I expected more from two legends like Hov and Yeezy. And then we have Magna Carta/Holy Grail, the most commercial hip-hop record I've ever heard. So what I'm trying to say is that Jay-Z has sorta wasted our time with his comeback. None of these albums were worth ruining legacy of The Black Album.
When I see Jay-Z ,I see a man obsessed with being relevant. It hasn’t fully hit him that his reign on top of the hip-hop world is over. That title of King of Hip-Hop tentatively belongs to Kanye West with his heir-apparent, Kendrick Lamar, making a grab at the crown. Hov needs to follow the example of Nas and Chuck D. He needs to bow out gracefully and let the young bucks have their turn. If Magna Carta/Holy Grail proved anything, it was that Jay-Z has lost his touch and is a shell of his former self. The Black Album serves as a reminder of what he used to be: a king. A king who can do nothing more now than watch the throne.