15 Years Later The Black Album Is Still JAY-Z’s Perfect Fadeaway (Video)
“Any time you’re making an album, especially if this is your last album, every single track has to be a statement. Like, in your mind, you’re thinking, I have to make the perfect album,” JAY-Z said before Fade To Black cameras during 2003, when the documentary filmed. “Anybody that knows me knows I’m dead serious. I’ll sit there and drive myself crazy ’til I find that right track.”
History shows that Shawn Corey Carter may have driven himself crazy, but he hit his mark. Whether he sincerely believed he was done making albums or not, he heightened the pressure on himself to an all-time high, and then delivered. For Rap, it was Evil Knievel’s death-defying jump—and for then last time in their minds, the crowd roared.
Fifteen years ago, JAY-Z solely occupied the pole position in Hip-Hop. While fans forever debate the victor, the Marcy Projects native left verbal confrontation with Nas in the better position, in terms of mass-public perception after the MC battle of the 2000s. He had climbed the charts, repeatedly, and laced the walls of Roc-A-Fella Records with his own platinum and gold plaques in less than a decade. While 50 Cent and OutKast had driven 2003 in a major way, Jay was in a class of his own. Like Eminem, The Notorious B.I.G., and Run-D.M.C. before him, Jay finally had the critics, the charts, and the hearts of the masses—all at once.
Following the groundswell of The Blueprint and the quick-strike sequels, Jay wanted a statement LP. The Black Album, released 15 years ago today (November 14, 2003) was a truly “grand closing” of the book in Shawn Carter’s illustrious 15-year Rap career, or so Heads seemingly believed at the time. What has made The Black Album so exceptional was its detailed planning and clear execution.
By 2003, past Jay collaborators Master P and Too Short had pump-faked retirement. In both cases, the artists not only revoked their vows, their exit music lacked gravitas—making their returns a bit blushed. In Jay’s case, however, this statement album not only amplified the attention to his lyrics (what other major album had its own mass-released acapella edition?) and music, it set the new standard for LP anticipation-and-delivery in the digital era.
The Black Album was blueprinted as the ideal farewell for Jay. Stripped of rapping or singing guests, the album unflinchingly made Hova and legacy its focal point. In tow, the MC sought out key producers from his past, and a few wish-list studio mates to deliver his magnum opus. In turn, he seemingly addressed all the things that made his career work—almost as a revue. Songs like early released “What More Can I Say?” showed that Jay felt he had fully manifested his artistic trajectory and narrative. The display was exceptional, and every bar seemed to be worthy of extensive analysis. On “Moment Of Clarity,” Jay’s openness and intimacy reached new plateaus. Shawn Carter was suddenly profound, and lucidly justifying his own legacy (and thug) through candid commentary, over-top Eminem production.
For many though, deep cuts like “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)” packed his eighth album’s greatest charms. On a 170-second dust-covered Just Blaze sample chop, Jay grandstanded—his flow, his status, his swagger, and his ability to make purebred Hip-Hop from the owner’s box. “99 Problems” did the same, as Jay sought out Rick Rubin’s proper return to Rap. There is footage of the Def Jam Records co-founder behind the boards, Mike D behind him, walking Jay through the takes. Having cut his teeth in DJ Premier’s cramped D&D Studios enclave, and having later built labs fit for Roc stars, S.Dot was still open to experimentation and new methods. A grown man with the woman of his dreams, an uber-talented team around him, and the most in-tact legacy of an active MC, Jay used every minute of The Black Album differently than past albums.
The 9th Wonder-produced “Threat” brought Jay back to wolf mode, while DJ Quik-laced “Justify My Thug” rolled out Jay’s man-code. Kanye West, still making his bones as one of Roc-A-Fella’s new and exciting voices, delivered in a major way with “Encore” and “Lucifer.” Just Blaze locked in more credits than anybody else, each showing his wax-informed range and sonic versatility. As detailed in Fade To Black, JAY-Z sifted through tons of tracks. Perhaps using foe Nas’ Illmatic as a template, Jay wanted each musical counterpart not only to mean something in the ensemble, but work together for something that had those individual statements, yet worked for a sum of the parts. He pulled from East and West, peer and protege, household-named hit-makers and faceless newcomers. The plan succeeded. There was no Twitter for widespread hot-takes. However, from barbershops to bars, across Blackberry, Sidekick, and AOL messages, the vast majority of people seemed to agree within says—Jay had done great.
Despite its mainstream recognition (only furthered by work with Linkin Park), The Black Album was not PG-13. Still, it balanced the antics of a former street hustler with major aspirations in the years ahead. He walked the line and compromised none of his past or his future. They met in the present. The Black Album brilliantly basked in its own hype.
The hero stuntman lived, and made music feel like an event. While history shows he’d return two years later, fans took him at his word, sort of, anyway. JAY-Z left the stage, and flicked off the switch—but the lighters of hungry fans illuminated the legacy he had built in real-time. The Black Album set the standard for great MCs to take that bow. Although the legacy effect has changed since that moment, one cannot listen to the album and detach from that everlasting sentiment.