Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Just Blaze, The Buchanans, Kanye West, The Neptunes, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, Eminem, Luis Resto, Rick Rubin, DJ Quik, Aqua, Joe "3H" Weinberger
Features: Pharrell Williams
First of all let's take this album to task like we're supposed to: The Black Album was a grade A troll, thematically unified by Jay's "retirement" which turned out to be more like a sabbatical. Typical Jay, so obsessed with controlling his own narrative he took a page out of Too $hort's book just to give his album a hook. Jay (hopefully) will never have an album with the context quite like The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death or 2Pac's The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory ("Nobody gone Wesley Snipe me," he says, on “Change Clothes”) even though he obviously wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as them (going so far as to release a double disk just because well, What Would Biggie Do?). He seemed to think that without actually becoming a ghost, he would never be appreciated properly. So, he got his flowers while he could still smell them and a chance to bask in appreciation of fans by faking a retirement. In the end, it was a miscalculation: It turned out putting out some of your best material that late in your career did more to secure his place in rap’s pantheon than sitting on a beach chair somewhere.
The retirement hook gave him certain creative license as well. On the production side, the album is as scattershot as Jay's previous effort, The Blueprint 2. Afterall, it was originally meant to be 12 songs by 12 producers. Like Watch The Throne, it gets away without having a sonic center because the theme of Jay's retirement carries it, even if songs like "Public Service Announcement" or "99 Problems" would play the same on any Jay album.
Jay got his flowers while he could still smell them and a chance to bask in appreciation of fans by faking a retirement. In the end, it was a miscalculation: It turned out putting out some of your best material that late in your career did more to secure his place in rap’s pantheon than sitting on a beach chair somewhere.
The difference between this album and Jay’s later efforts is that his articulation was still so exceptional that even casual rhymes went a long way. Even as he he claimed to be running out of ideas on “What More Can I Say?” he still found time to offer a defense for the Biggie rhymes he’s quoted over the years, “I'm not a biter, I'm a writer, for myself and others/I say a B.I.G. verse I'm only bigging up my brother/Bigging up my borough, I'm big enough to do it, I'm that thorough.” Meanwhile, fellow Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli surely appreciate the shoutout he got on “Moment of Clarity,” “If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five mil)/I ain't been rhyming like Common since.” An oft quoted line—Kweli’s biography ought to be titled If Skills Sold—it’s unfortunate Jay had to shit on his late ‘90s catalog by saying he “dumbed it down.” Yet the fact that so many people bought into narrative this line offers goes to show the intelligence that Jay-Z has.
Meanwhile, songs like "December 4th," which could have easily become totally self indulgent and campy, offered couplets like, "The drought can define a man when the well dries up/You learn the worth of water without work, you thirst til you die, yup!" And the often criticized "Justify My Thug” (if only Madonna would have came through like she was supposed to!) still had lines like, "Before you knock the boy, try and put your dogs in his 10 and a halfs, for a minute and a half/Bet that stops all the grinning and the laughs, when you play the game of life and the win ain't in the bag."
All that goes without even talking about the inevitable heartbreak of “Allure,” the callback to Jay's double-time flow on "My First Song," to the Obama approved bounce of "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." Still, there’s one of the best rock rap songs ever, “99 Problems,” the wails of Max Romeo’s "Chase the Devil" on “Lucifer,” and the endlessly quotable “Public Service Announcement.” Jay might have taken it from Marcy to Madison Square, but this album was Jay’s Game 6 (and yes, Kingdom Come was MJ’s stretch with the Wizards). Jay stole the the ball, pushed Byron Russell out of the way, and hit the game winner. Are you not entertained? — Insanul Ahmed