And now, the end is near. The jigga faces the final curtain. ‘The Black Album’ is [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s ninth album in seven years and, if we’re to believe this elegant hip-hop institution, the last one he’ll ever make. “Pound for pound I’m the best that ever come around,” he claims on ‘What More Can I Say?’ And, while the rap world is necessarily full of egomaniacs and hyperbole, it’s hard to argue. [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s nonchalant flow, his dazzling wordplay, his cultivation of the finest beatmasters, the artful little twists he puts on both the thug life and its uptown sequel – all this puts Shawn Carter on another level to virtually anyone else in hip-hop history.
But is this really his last record? [a]Jay-Z[/a] is something of a [a]Frank Sinatra[/a] fan, going so far as to cover ‘My Way’ (quite badly) on last year’s ‘The Blueprint 2’, and comparing himself and his “Rat Pack niggas” to the man on ‘Threat’ here. Sinatra, of course, retired so many times that it became a long-running showbusiness joke. And [a]Jay-Z[/a], like Sinatra, understands that few moves create more publicity and pathos than the big farewell. So the first line he utters on ‘The Black Album’ is “They say they never really miss you ’til you’re dead or you’re gone,” and from then on he pulls out every arrogant, manipulative, sentiment-drenched trick in the very old book to wind up his fans.
The thing is, it works sensationally. ‘The Black Album’ is a 55-minute curtain call, during which J-Hova shamelessly reflects on his hustling past and his playboy present, “From grammes to Grammys”. He works the audience so hard that by the end of it, even the most cynical listener will feel far more thrilled and moved than exploited. That he does all this alongside some utterly fucking fabulous music only hammers the point home harder: I am King, and you’ll miss me when I’m gone.
How good is this album? Well, a lot better than the bloated ‘Blueprint 2’, for a start. ‘The Black Album’ is [a]Jay-Z[/a] in the optimum form of 2001’s ‘The Blueprint’, just as he has been all year on his guest verses for [a]Beyonce[/a], [a]Outkast[/a], Pharrell and Panjabi MCs. As an indicator of the quality, the tunes produced by The Neptunes and Eminem are probably the weakest ones here, with the former on silky autopilot and Em reheating the overly-pompous ‘Lose Yourself’ sound for ‘Moment Of Clarity’.
The most striking track, ’99 Problems’, rides the same ‘Big Beat’ rhythm as [a]Dizzee Rascal[/a]’s ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’, being thumping old-school rap-rock in the vein of early [a]Run DMC[/a] and LL Cool J (and produced by that sound’s original architect, Rick Rubin). As the cowbell rattles and the cops interrogate our hero, it’s hard to imagine a more explosive song has been released in 2003.
For the most part, though, [a]Jay-Z[/a]’s battalion of producers stick with the rich, warm ’70s soul sound that dominated ‘The Blueprint’, and let him do the rest. Apart from a couple of choruses sung by Pharrell and a few reminiscences from Jay’s mum on ‘December 4’, ‘The Black Album’ is a strictly solo show. Constantly, he compares leaving the rap game to leaving the streets, and deals with both with an unusually vulnerable ambiguity. “Son it ain’t even fun no more, I’m jaded,” he claims on ‘Allure’. On ‘Moment Of Clarity’ he’s even franker, admitting, “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars.”
This isn’t quite an apology: a “dumbed-down” [a]Jay-Z[/a] is still immeasurably smarter than most of the competition (“No, I didn’t get shot up a whole bunch of times,” he snipes at [a]50 Cent[/a]). His lyrical skills have been in such demand that, rumour persists, he’s ghostwritten rhymes for many of his contemporaries – a story he seems to confirm in ‘What More Can I Say’ when he notes, “I’m not a biter I’m a writer, for myself and others.”
What emerges is a man deeply proud of his gifts and his experiences, but one who’s also a lot more self-aware and reflective than his flashy image might suggest. By the end, on the wonderful blues of ‘My First Song’, his voice is breaking a little as he sings, “It’s my life”, and says his protracted farewells. It’s a magnificent way to leave hip-hop, quitting while you’re ahead for a new life as an author, actor and trainer magnate. After all, if his old business partner Damon Dash insists on hanging around with [a]Victoria Beckham[/a], who can blame