Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
The Black Album positioned itself to be a classic album well before it was even released. Originally planned as 12 songs with production from 12 different legendary producers, that approach wouldn't stick (collaborations with artists like Dr. Dre and DJ Premier never happened), but the ardent nature of the recording did. The Black Album was to remain Jay-Z's last album before he retired from making music.
We know that Hov's retirement didn't last, but at the time, the gesture seemed sincere, and it added to the embellishment of the album, and with good reason—The Black Album is fantastic. For whatever regression fans believe they saw on The Blueprint 2, Jay's "last album" made up for that.
In a way, Jay-Z sounds insecure on this album, nervous that his legacy will be forgotten, rapping things like, "I'm supposed to be number one on everybody's list." And it's for the best. Jay-Z gives it all his all on The Black Album, rhyming and monitoring production with the insistence of an artist bent on proving something, and the record never falters because of that. Even the oft-lambasted "Change Clothes" altered hip-hop culture's entire perspective on fashion. There's no way that you can't rank this album's among Jay-Z's best. — Ernest Baker