Track-By-Track Review Of Jay Z’s “The Black Album” A Decade Later
It’s hard to believe that Jay Zis still the most popular rapper in the world, in part, because for years it seemed like he wanted nothing to do with rap.
Months after releasing his classic debut album, Reasonable Doubt, Jay Z talked about retiring. He was gonna do two more joints, then split. He even said it again on the intro to theHard Knock Life album, where he passed the crown to Memphis Bleek. (Please stop snickering).
Of course he kept on going, putting out four more albums.
Then in 2003, Jay announced he was done. After dropping another certified classic, The Blueprint, and going through a bruising battle with Nas, the rapper proclaimed he was releasing his final album, called The Black Album.
He seemed serious this time.
Hov collected some of the best producers he could find and locked himself in the studio to make a truly epic album.
With its lead single, “Change Clothes,” The Black Album dropped on November 14th, 2003 — ten years ago today. Jay would have one final party at Madison Square Garden and then he would bounce, leaving the crown in Memphis Bleek’s hands. (Seriously, guys: stop laughing!)
Of course we know now that the rapper would return to hip-hop just three years later, dropping Kingdom Come, and then proceeding to release some great projects, like his collabo album with Kanye West,Watch the Throne.
But let’s focus on The Black Album: From day one, people knew Jay had left them with a classic.
So how does it hold up today?
On its 10-year anniversary, we review The Black Album – track-by-track.
Watch Just Blaze talk about the intro.
Jay Z has a rep for being a mysterious cat. It’s a curious rep, because throughout his career, Jay has actually been quite revealing, telling story after story about his hustling past.
However, never has he summarized his whole life like he did on The Black Album opening cut, “December 4th,” which features his mother, Gloria Carter, who provides more intimate details.
The song is perfect, and what makes it incredible is how efficient the rhyming is. Jay breathlessly slides though his life in less than five minutes. A more self-indulgent rapper would have stretched this thing out for like 10 minutes. Not Jay: he’s in and out, and you leave the song not needing any more details.
Enhancing the track is Just Blaze, who blesses Hov with one of the prettiest sounding beats he’s ever made.
Rating: 10 out of 10
“What More Can I Say”
In every Jay album, the rapper has at least one song purely dedicated to showing off his lyrical muscle, just for the sport of it. “What More Can I Say” was that song on The Black Album.
Let’s reminisce about the times for a second: the year was 2003. 50 Cent just sold a gang of records with his Get Rich or Die Tryingdebut; public perception was that Nas beat Jay Z in their rap beef from a couple of years prior; and Eminem was the commercial darling of hip-hop. So where did that leave Jay?
He was still one of the best, but he wanted to be seen as the best, so he crafted this thing of beauty. It’s the third verse where things get special:
“I ain’t never scared. I’m everywhere, you ain’t never there And nigga, why would I ever care? Pound-for-pound, I’m the best to ever come around here Excluding nobody, look what I embody: The soul of a hustler, I really ran the street A CEO’s mind, that marketing plan was me And no I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines And I ain’t animated like, say, Busta Rhymes But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines Add that to the fact I went plat’ a bunch of times Times that by my influence on pop culture I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist Fuck this”
Honestly, we wouldn’t have been mad if this song was the album’s first single. It’s probably one of the happiest songs of Hov’s career. Kanye West, who wasn’t a superstar yet, gave Jay a beat you can play in the background at your family cookout. The song is iconic, and it’s become a regular at Jay’s shows. (Jay usually teases the song at the end of his set).
Rating: 10 out of 10
So here are where the problems arise. Is “Change Clothes” a good song? It’s cool, we guess. But it’s also a pretty bland attempt at redoing “Excuse Me Miss” from The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. Ask yourself this: when’s the last time you actually wanted to hear this song? Or, better yet, when was the last time Jay even performed the track? Go to a Hov concert and you’ll still see the rapper perform his iconic Neptunes collabo,”I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me).”
We’ll say this: while the song is boring, it was important. Jay’s message of throwing away the jerseys and dressing in a more mature way was one of the most important things Jay has done for the culture.
Rating: 6 out of 10
“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
The way Jay slides on this track is unbelievable. Like, seriously, if someone were teaching a class on flowing, Timbaland’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” beat would be on the final. The shit is tough, man; the beat never stops moving and Jay just flows on it like it’s any ol’ James Brown break. And shout out to Jay for bringing back the alteration. (“Your boy back in the building, Brooklyn we back on the map, me and my beautiful bee-itch in the back of that ‘Bach”).
Ninth Wonder, you’re a genius for this one! Jay doesn’t actually say that on “Threat,” but fuck, he should have. The underground producer, who was part of the group Little Brother at the time, chopped the shit out of R. Kelly’s somber “A Woman’s Threat.”
As you all know, Jay would unretire after a break and come back in 2006 with Kingdom Come. He has released a number of songs since 2006, but one of the things the rapper doesn’t do anymore is release really hard music. There’s an argument to be made that “Threat” is the last truly great gangsta Jay Z track.
Rating: 9 out of 10
“Moment of Clarity”
Jay Z is once again in full reflective mode on “Moment of Clarity.” Where “December 4th” focused on Jay’s relationship with his mother, Jay uses “Moment of Clarity” to touch on the troubled relationship he had with his father, who recently passed at the time:
“Pop died, didn’t cry, didn’t know him that well Between him doing heroin and me doing crack sales Put that in the eggshell, standing at the tabernacle Rather the church, pretending to be hurt wouldn’t work So a smirk was all on my face Like “damn, that man’s face is just like my face” So pop, I forgive you for all the shit that I lived through It wasn’t all your fault, homey you got caught.”
Jay is as thoughtful as ever on this track. It’s a shame that the beat doesn’t match his energy. The song was produced by Eminem and he gave the rapper a plodding Dr. Dre knockoff.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Jay has experimented with rock a couple of times throughout his career. But he needed the master, Rick Rubin, to really get it right. “99 Problems” is just one large homage to old-school hip-hop. The song is a remake of Ice T’s “99 Problems;” Rick gives Jay an ’80s inspired beat; and Hov quotes the OG Bun B on verse number three:
We can’t wait until we see rappers quote portions of this song.
Rating: 10 out of 10
“Public Service Announcement (Interlude)”
There’s an argument to be made that “Public Service Announcement” is the most well-known song from this album. How could it not be? Since 2003, we don’t think Jay has done a concert without performing this track.
What’s amazing about this song is that it was a last-minute addition.
Ask most Jay fans and they’ll say that “Justify My Thug” is the weak link on The Black Album. And maybe they’re right: would this album be any less if it was just 13 tracks? Obviously not.
But still, this track is kinda dope to us. He’s rapping his ass off on here, using some great rhyme schemes. (Example: For every action there’s a reaction, don’t have me relapsing/Relaxin’s what I’m about, but about mine/Don’t be actin like you can’t see street action/Take me back to Reasonable Doubt time”).
But the beat, provided by DJ Quick, and the hook, are both stinkers. Hey, at least we don’t have to ask ourselves, “How would Jay sound on a DJ Quick beat?”
Rating: 7 out of 10
“Lucifer” is the other big Kanye West, Jay Z collabo on the album. And while “Encore” was happy, Jay decides to go to the dark side on collabo number two. One of the things that hurts this track is that it feels like an album cut.
Do you know what we’re saying? It’s song that just feels like it should be placed number 10 on an album. In other words, it’s filler. So while Kanye comes through with a wicked beat (he was always so fucking awesome) this song doesn’t really bang with the “99 Problems” kind of tracks on here.
Rating: 7 out of 10
What a beautiful fucking song this is. And it’s underrated. People usually have very high regard for this track: but that’s not enough. This song should be placed next to “Can I Live,” “Dead Presidents II” and “Where I’m From.”
The beat, provided by the Neptunes, is a thing of beauty. There’s a depth that’s usually missing from Neptunes tracks, which are usually sparser.
However, it’s the verses that make the song all-time great, especially verse number two, which is straight out of a Toni Morrison novel:
“I’m living proof that crime do pay Say “hooray” to the bad guy, and all the broads Putting cars in their name, for the stars of the game Putting ‘caine in their bras and their tomorrows on the train: All in the Name of Love Just to see that love locked in chains and the family came Over the house to take back everything that they claimed Or even the worse pain is the distress Learning you’re the mistress only after that love gets slain And the anger and the sorrow mixed up leads to mistrust Now it gets tough to ever love again.”
Rating: 10 out of 10
“My 1st Song”
Props to Jay Z for showing love to a newcomer for what was supposed to be his swan song. The track was produced by this cat named Aqua, who would go on to do a couple of Roc-a-Fella album cuts here and there.
Jay uses a pretty cool double time flow on this to prove his point. But there’s something that is sort of anti-climatic about the track, honestly. And maybe it’s because the song comes after the epic “Allure.” The track is cool, but if we were Jay, we would have ditched it and left “Allure” as the last track.