As the holidays are upon us, and I’ll do just about anything to avoid studying for final exams, I decided to start a little thing every week called, “These are a few of my favorite things.” The posts will entail looking back and reviewing (Stay with me here) a few of my favorite things. In honor of today being acclaimed rapper Jay-Z’s birthday, I’ve decided to look back on what is my favorite record by the man: The Black Album (2003)
Released eleven years ago and advertised as Jay-z’s eighth and final studio album produced by Roc-A-Fella Records, the already acclaimed rapper certainly pulls out all the stops for this one. Jay explained the reason he wanted to retire from the rap business is because he felt that there was no more competition for him and that he was at the top of his game. Usually to flat out say that you’re the best rapper out there at the time it’s a bold statement; yet for Jay, it was nothing short of the truth. Rap in the early 2000s was dominated by Jay-z and nobody could compete with him. Yes, Jay-Z came “out of retirement” in 2006 with his solo album Kingdom Come, but even then the album’s impact on American rap stood its ground.
I didn’t get into rap music until my freshman year of high school, and I was just caught up with Kanye West and Eminem. I really didn’t give The Black Album a full blown listen until the end of my Sophomore year while, IRONICALLY, I was studying for finals! The opening interlude doesn’t offer much and to be honest I skip it when it comes on my iPod, but the album truly begins its magic with the second track, “December 4th.” The single starts off with a narration from Jay-Z’s “mother” (Who knows if it’s his real mom) talking about Sean Carter (Jay’s real name) being born December 4th and how he gave her no pain in labor, thus why she thought he was a special child. Jay takes control next spitting lyrics about people not being missed until they’re dead or gone, so on that note he’s leaving after this song. The first line, and I was hooked on this song, I knew it’d be an instant classic for me, and it’s still true to this day.
This leads into the second track titled, “What More Can I Say.” Already, Jay-z has listeners’ attention and he even samples a Russell Crowe quote from Gladiator (2002), “Are you not entertained,” as if he is preaching to listeners out there. Jay even takes a line from a Notorious B.I.G. lyric due to the fact that he (Jay) was featured in the song and it acts as a tribute to one of rap’s greatest minds that Jay-Z always went back and forth with. It also serves as a point of irony due to the accusations that Jay stole lines from Notorious. “What More Can I Say” has a legacy of its own being sampled in the T.I. single, “Bring ’em Out,” and being mashed up with The Beatles’, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” on The Grey Album (2004).
While, “Encore,” isn’t as much of a pump up song as it is when mashed up with Linkin Park’s, “Numb,” it certainly gives hints that Jay-Z isn’t retiring forever. Like I said before, I doubt anybody really thought the man was done, and it was more of a publicity stunt; and this track proves it. Jay talks about, “Coming back like Jordan wearing the 45.” Produced by Kanye West (The first of West’s two tracks he produced on the album), it is certainly a highlight of the record and shows hope that Jay will come back from the dead and take over rap once more. And like I said, it serves as a great pump up song when mashed together with, “Numb.”
“Dirt Off Your Shoulders” gave way to one of the greatest gestures of all time that even Barack Obama used in April, 2008 which caused a lot of questions. The only question it raised for me is just how stacked is El Pres’ iPod?
“99 Problems” Is arguably the best track on the album and more often than not considered Jay’s best single of all time. The song’s second verse alone has been analyzed line for line by many critics. It addresses Jay-Z’s 1994 experience being pulled over in New Jersey under the pretenses that he is an African American and the officer had to let Jay go because he had no proof or reason to search his car. The verse certainly addresses issues with profiling and discrimination that we even see today, and Jay uses his words not only to entertain, but to make a social commentary. The chorus states that Jay has, “99 problems but a bitch ain’t one,” referring to the fact that the Jersey officer wished to bring a K9 unit to search his car, but they didn’t arrive in time so like I said, the cop had to let Jay-Z go. However most people when they listen to it just associate it with some girl who wronged them in their life. To each his own.
“Public Service Announcement (Interlude)” has my favorite verse on the album where Jay calls himself, “The music biz number one supplier,” and says that he calls everyone else in the business actors that he shoots at like he’s a movie director; but this ain’t a movie. Unbelievable. I love how bold Jay is in this track and he sounds like if the captain is going down, he’s gonna get the last word on everyone. Jay bangs you over the head with the simple fact that not only is he the best, but there will be no one to follow in his footsteps once he steps down from the throne.
The last song I’ll talk about is, “My 1st Song,” which also serves as a great close for the record. The late Biggie Smalls is sampled at the beginning of the album as he says he attempts to, “Treat everything like it’s [his] first project.” It serves as a great allusion since the song does serve as the final track on Jay’s, “Final album.” He then transitions towards the end of the track that this is indeed his last track and that he is going to a better place where there are no mosquitos. Certainly a reference to the media buzzing in his ear like the annoying bugs that pester people day in and day out. A beautiful close to a near perfect album.
Overall Rating: 9/10 – Amazing
If you are into rap or just getting into it and for some reason have not listened to this acclaimed album, I highly recommend it. In fact, keep the song lyrics open on your computer and read the words as you listen, to really see what Jay has to say about himself, his competition (Or lack thereof), and the media. That’s not to say that EVERYONE will like it. Like I had my aunt in the car the other week when we saw Birdman (2014) and she was asking me, “What is this crap?” So to all you aunts out there, you may not like it. Everyone else, though, have at it.
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