The “Ultimate” Exit That Was Jay Z’s Black Album (Food For Thought)
Hip-Hop celebrates a grand entrance. Since the days of receiving Bad Boy Records promo-packs of The Notorious B.I.G. & Craig Mack in a McDonald’s “Big Mac” container, the dog-and-pony show known as the music industry has embraced the infinite possibilities of the new over the challenges of re-purposing the old. It’s not a coincidence that many artists’ debuts are the albums often considered to be their classics—Illmatic, Ready to Die, Doggystyle…
While entrances are heralded in Hip-Hop, “exits,” especially those that don’t endure, have also become a storied tradition in Hip-Hop. EPMD opened, closed, and re-opened their business over three decades. Too Short’s album titles tell the story of a man who “can’t stay away.” Even Master P promised his album-making finale on 1998’s MP Da Last Don, before coming back just 15 months later with Only God Can Judge Me. All of that said, no “exodus” was more grand than Jay Z’s The Black Album, 10 years ago, today (November 14).
2003 marked 15 years of on-record rapping for the pride of the Marcy Houses. However, every great story needs a denouement. Jay, one of the greatest storytellers of his time, knew this. If The Blueprint were the climax of his career, the artist wanted an album to leave great taste in the mouth of the fickle fans of Hip-Hop. Following a rugged war with Nas, The Black Album was to be free of tension, and allow Jay to further his journey inward, giving up pieces of the man that he protected from the listener early in his career.
Also, Jay is scientific with his. Every move has, and will always be calculated. From Michael Jackson cameos on the Summer Jam stage, to publicly uniting with Nas, to leaving Def Jam amidst national holidays, Jay leaves little to chance. Screenwriter Syd Field famously wrote that a great movie is really just seven great scenes. Arguably, an immortal Rap career is really three great albums. It’s why Dr. Dre is chiseling away at Detox in his upper-forties, why Eminem is feverishly trying new recipes, and why Ultramagnetic MCs, Goodie Mob, and X-Clan seemingly lack the cache of A Tribe Called Quest, UGK, or De La Soul. For as much as folks may claim to love In My Lifetime, Roc La Familia, or Hard Knock Life, the c-word usually only reserved for Jay albums released in ’96, ’01, and subsequently ’03. Jay wanted to stifle all naysayers and immortalize his catalog.
In the triptych frame of thought, Jay sought an album that felt cyclical, but groundbreaking. 1996’s Reasonable Doubt was influenced by so much of what came before it, including Nas, G. Rap, and Dre, but yet the presentation was unique. Jay showed glimpses of his time as Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane’s pupil, but also slowed it down to make it plain for the hustlers in search of a soundtrack. Jay also told listeners the stories of his ’88-’94 life, a debut album true to the adage that the artist had his whole life to make. Five years later, The Blueprint complemented Neo-Soul’s movement in R&B with Chipmunk Soul. In spite of sample-budget extinction, Just Blaze and Kanye West pitched-up a sound with evocative drums that made Jay’s words sound as big as they were in the streets. Where the emotionless MC fell short, the producers made the song cry, and when his sledgehammer wasn’t convincing enough, they slammed down with drums, vocals, and a grit that made it arguably the best LP of the last 15 years.
So for The Black Album, Jay opened up the kimono a bit to fans. The early reports indicated that Jay was soliciting beats from all of his partners over the last eight years. Reunions were allegedly transpiring with DJ Premier, Ski Beats, Irv Gotti, and others. Early on, features were said to be scarce, at a time when the collaboration was beginning to become less chemistry, and more status-inspired. Early on, given the name of the album and its elusive concept, Jay was clearly doing things differently, for himself, and the culture.
Interestingly enough, The Black Album missed its mythology. Dr. Dre and DJ Premier were notably absent from the final workings of the album. The actual sessions, if recorded, were never heard. Sticking to the script of Pharrell, Tim, Just, and ‘Ye, Jay made a sound different than previous work. He did link with DJ Quik, a collaboration that few could have predicted. The Compton vet laced a beat that sounded nothing like his work for AMG, Hi-C, or 2nd II None, and instead sounded cohesive alongside the works of his East Coast peers. Rick Rubin also gave Jay a dose of ’88 with “99 Problems,” which as one song, seemingly forecast the entire approach to Marshall Mathers LP 2 nine years early. 9th Wonder, who had began the year releasing one of ’03’s most heralded works in the underground, The Listening, alongside Little Brother, also provided “Threat.” Jay’s A&R outfit including Hip-Hop Since 1978 and Lenny S., as well as engineer Young Guru, shined.
The resulting album may be Jay’s finest hour. The Black Album Hov is a fully-evolved MC whose gaze never meets his own reflection. Jay is one of the most self-aware artists of all-time, but in the vacuum of this album, he wrote diary-like entries that channeled his speckled past (“99 Problems” / “Threat”), while embracing the benchmark moment (“Encore” / “My First Song”), and alluding to the future (“What More Can I Say?”). Lyrically, Jay won the championship and walked off the field forever, like John Elway or Jerome Bettis–or, as we would later see, more like Michael Jordan the first time he departed from The Game. In the act, he proved that he didn’t need to be a project kingpin or in a mainstream bout to drive the market. Instead, Jay took a page from Biggie’s debut, and used an event and an idea to throw down the mic and make people give notice.
It all worked.
While debates carry on to this day about which of those three albums truly is Jay at his best, the MC left the stage shortly after The Black Album with the seemingly strongest grip on the audience an artist in Hip-Hop has had since the ’90s. In the three years that followed, Jay’s appearances on and off record, were cherished. His every word was analyzed for subliminal meaning, and scavengers who attacked him or questioned him were ignored or dismissed.
Also, by stepping down, Jay Z allowed Hip-Hop to jockey for rank once more. Artists like T.I., Kanye West, Jadakiss, Game, and 50 Cent owe a lot to the void Jay left after The Black Album. Hip-Hop had restored its color and variety to how it was in the days when Jay was introduced. Without new music to promote, The Black Album stayed in the conversation for years. Through official and unofficial remix albums, videos, and tons of crossover radio play.
In 14 songs, Jay Z chronicled 15 years of Hip-Hop sound in an album. In the verses, he touched on all aspects of his life with a trust in the listener and the product that we had not previously heard. As Jay said, “and on that note I’m leaving after the song,” he made us all feel guilty as a culture for not being more grateful: of the art, of the Roc, of the moment. Jay tackled the convention that you had to die or be forced into retirement to be great, and he won. It was cinema and, as he mandated in “Dead Presidents 2,” the villain won.