Ten years ago, Jay Z released The Black Album as a preamble to his extremely temporary retirement. It feels strange to celebrate this record now, in the same way that it feels strange to say it’s been a decade since its release. After all, the album never really went away. “PSA” remains a club-and-concert standard. “99 Problems” is, for the Macklemore side of White America, the biggest song of Jay Z’s career. And The Black Album spawned The Grey Album, which transformed an underground hip-hop producer into a pop star in an animal suit. Even though both albums came out after Jay’s reputation-transforming The Blueprint, The Black Album had an impact and has sustained it, in a way The Blueprint 2 never really could.
After The Black Album, he became an Important Cultural Figure, whose symbolic importance transcended his importance to the music’s development.
Although The Blueprint set him on this path, The Black Album was the moment that finally propelled Jay into position as hip-hop’s Bono-figure, a friend to the President, a soundtrack programmer, a businessman and business, man, and an artworld affiliate. Although his retirement was temporary in one sense, in another, it was real, and he never came back from it. The Jay Z who held you six summers down transitioned into the Jay that would hold you down intermittently on the radio, occasionally storm the pop charts (see: 2009, Watch The Throne, etc.), but whose primary significance was as the one who thugged his way through. After The Black Album, he was an Important Cultural Figure, whose symbolic importance transcended mere music.
The early 2000s were a strange time, and a few different pieces had to fall into place for Jay to make his cultural breakthrough. The first was the rise of 50 Cent. 50 transformed gangster rap into larger-than-life blockbuster symbolism, obliterating nuance in favor of the aesthetics of dominance. He wasn’t safe, and he was also popular, which was unsettling and scary and acted as a force of gravity that upset pop music’s equilibrium.
In essence, it made thugging your way through the industry—at least, visibly—obsolete. Who could out-thug 50? He had been so successful, represented for a certain style of rap so effectively that Get Rich or Die Trying was warping everything around it. But here we are, ten years later, and Jay Z is considered hip-hop’s dominant force, while 50 Cent vies for relevance.
The Black Album was Jay Z’s escape hatch, and he made it by being smarter than everyone else at marketing. He played the long game, pulled back and let 50 Cent tire himself out. But he also sensed the way things were moving and signaled his way into continued relevance by finding a new and more monied fanbase.
What Jay began to recognize was that accessing power is about perception. 50 Cent's power came through domination, through mercilessness. Jay recognized that power was also about symbolism and signaling. And just as 50 was releasing his G-Unit supergroup’s Beg For Mercy, a gangsters-uber-alles record that basically split the balance between bangers and radio-friendly ballads, Jay Z rapped about how he wanted to spit like Talib Kweli.
"I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/They criticized me for it, yet they all yell "holla"/If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be/Lyrically/Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill'—I ain't been rhyming like Common since..."
For those of us who had been fans of his music for some time, this felt a little corny. I liked Talib Kweli, too. But completely betraying a back-catalog that we’d defend to the death in the Jay Z vs. Nas wars seemed transparent. Pandering, even, to an audience who only saw value in rap music which would reflect their own progressive values. As Justin Charity put it in his defense of Eminem’s more offensive output, “there’s a paradoxical whimsy in wishing that our favorite artists would just, you know, radically revise the gist of their art” in an effort to appeal to our better selves. Jay Z had no problem indicating to a new, more respectable hip-hop fan that he would do just that.
Maybe he is telling a sincere truth. Or maybe this is just another hustle, for a new, more politically-minded audience. It was kind of reassuring.
But we were a minority, a group that saw value in his radio singles and thought that, as great as Kweli was, Jay was clearly the superior talent as a rapper, even at his most “dumbed-down.” But there was something funny about his statement, something that, upon reflection, only served to reinforce Jay Z’s essential Jay Z-ness: It's possible he is telling a sincere truth. Or maybe this is just another hustle, for a new, more politically-minded audience. It was kind of reassuring.
Although sold as his maturation—"I don’t wear jerseys, I’m 30-plus/Give me a crisp pair of jeans nigga, button-ups"—this moment was, in this interpretation, about selling himself to a fanbase that had access to the channels of power. The streets were 50’s, but the streets wouldn’t take Jay where Jay needed to be. He was aiming for the boardrooms for real. 50's street theater was scary; Jay recognized that it was time for reassurance.
In Spring, 2003, Oliver Wang released a collection of essays from some of hip-hop’s most well-known music writers entitled Classic Material. In it was an essay by music writer Elizabeth Mendez Berry that covered the beginnings of Jay’s transformation from street rap prophet to critical darling. Berry found some of the execution wanting, chiding the rapper for revolutionary posturing that was more talk than action: "Jay-Z is convincing. When he raps, 'I'm representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat/Where Malcolm X was shot/Where Martin Luther was popped' on 'The Ruler's Back,' you almost believe him." But she finds the rhetoric empty. Jay is not, she argues, a revolutionary. When she watches a chain bang against Che Guevera's face on Jay's t-shirt in his Unplugged performance, the contradiction becomes grating.
In 2003, prior to the release of The Black Album, when the Village Voice sent her to interview him, she showed Jay her criticisms. He appeared to take it to heart. The next day, he told her that he'd been inspired to write a new, second verse for "P.S.A." In 2010, with the release of Decoded, he would explain in more detail, extracted in full on the Voice's website.
The second verse for "Public Service Announcement" was almost entirely unrelated to the first verse. I wrote the second verse, which opens with the lyrics, I'm like Che Guevara with bling on, I'm complex, as a response to the journalist. When someone asked me at the time of the Unplugged show why it was that I wore the Che T-shirt, I think I said something glib like, "I consider myself a revolutionary because I'm a self-made millionaire in a racist society." But it was really that it just felt right to me. I knew that people would have questions. Some people in the hip-hop world were surprised by it. There are rappers like Public Enemy and Dead Prez who've always been explicitly revolutionary, but I wasn't one of them. I also wasn't a Marxist like Che—the platinum Jesus piece made that pretty clear.
Then later on:
The journalist was right, though. Images aren't everything, and a T-shirt doesn't change who you are. Like I said in the song "Blueprint 2," cause the nigger wear a kufi, it don't mean that he is bright. For any image or symbol or creative act to mean something, it has to touch something deeper, connect to something true. I know that the spirit of struggle and insurgency was woven into the lives of the people I grew up with in Bed-Stuy, even if in sometimes fucked up and corrupted ways. Che's failures were bloody and his contradictions frustrating. But to have contradictions—especially when you're fighting for you life--is human, and to wear the Che shirt and platinum and diamonds together is honest. In the end I wore it because I meant it.
Jay definitely recognized the power of images and symbols. His lyric, rather than explaining away the contradiction of Che Guevara with bling on, suggests a principled consistency that would remain. He didn't change his ways, or stop "dumbing it down." The Black Album simply marked the moment when he shifted the audience he was speaking to. The symbols of new wealth shifted to the symbols of education and "maturation."