It’s no mystery to anyone who has at least one ear that this is Jay-z’s last album. He has spoken of it for a few years and has made statements that this will be the first time in his career that he puts pen to pad instead of using his amazing gift of memory to write his rhymes. From picking producers and tracks to throw down on, to the release dates shifting to and fro, this record has had more expectations than Super Bowl commercials, so let’s see if the proclaimed god-emcee blesses the mic in his supposed final LP.
The intro slowly fades in and there’s an awful lot of electronic noises goin on, almost video game-ish, but nothing horrifying or even bad, just very different. Then someone speaks about things coming to an end, and the legacy of a fallen tree in Brooklyn, it’s very metaphoric. “December 4th” uses Jay-z’s mother as the hook, she speaks about S-dot’s childhood, and recalls his birth which is December 4th. The beat is a very triumphant soul 70’s type of beat, the first flo on the album: “they say they never really miss you til you’re dead or you gone / so on that note I’m leaving after this song”. The song is mostly about his childhood and how he came to be who he is, from his pops leaving him to how he got into selling drugs and even a little about getting into the rap game, a very respectable track.
“What More Can I Say” starts off with an audio clip from “Gladiator” where Russell Crowe shouts “Are you not entertained??!!” then throws his sword into the crowd, nice touch. Mostly braggadocious, “And I don’t wear jerseys, I’m 30 plus / give me a crisp pair of jeans nigga, button-ups”. The music is definitely banging on a hype note, hits, kicks and cymbals keep the beat hopping throughout, the hook is a hot soulful vocal provided by Hum V who I haven’t previously heard.
Possibly my favorite song on the album is “Encore”, Kanye West provides the music and (as always) he’s absolutely brilliant. Jay provides his own chorus with a little accompaniment singer. A very soft song with a lot of depth, Hova spits: “And I need you to remember one thing, I came, I saw, I conquered / from record sales, to sold out concerts”. “Change Clothes” is all over the video rotation (I’ve been tuning off the radio until Lil Jon resides back to his hole), and it’s definitely catchy with a bit of flow to tie it together.
“Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is a street favorite at the moment, produced by Timbaland it’s an electric song but the beat isn’t all that strong, it’s typical Timbo mojo. The flow is pretty serious though: “Came from the bottom with bottom, to the top of the pops / nigga, London, Japan and I’m straight off the block / like a running back, get it man, I’m straight off the block / I could run it back nigga cuz I’m straight with the Roc”. Jigga even provides the chorus, a nice song overall worth riding to on those sunny days with the windows rolled.
Cedric the Entertainer has a guest spot on “Threat” (produced by up and comer 9th Wonder) as a guy talking hard and crazy, it’s great. The beat is pretty serious creating a dark mood to take up beef and Hova is packing heat aimed at seemingly nobody in particular (but he does mention Bill O’Reilly), he spits pretty dangerous: “Like Castor Oil, I’ll Castor Troy you / change your face or the bullets change all that for you / ya’ll niggas is targets, ya’ll garages for bullets, please don’t make me park it in your upper level / valet a couple strays from the .38 special / nigga, God bless you”, and ends with “I’m especially Joe Pesci wit it friend / I’ll kill you, commit suicide then kill you again”.
One of the weaker beats comes on “Moment of Clarity” produced by Eminem (which you’ll probably realize as soon as the beat kicks up), heavily laden with strings and a slow bassline. However, it does effectively give backup to Jay-z as he raps about different thoughts and struggles he has, such as: “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 rhymin like Common since”. He’s sickly with the flo, the chorus is on point and he’s talking about something that anyone without a trust fund can relate to on some level.
“If you havin girl problems I feel bad for you son / I got 99 problems but a [girl] ain’t one” is how “99 Problems” starts off. Rick Rubin brings back the big beat here along with some heavy metal guitars, and it amazingly works, and did I hear a cowbell in there?? Wow. Once again, Jigga hits the bullseye with the lyrics, the second verse has an exchange where Jay-z is pulled over by a cop: “(cop)son do you know why I’m stoppin you fo? / (Jay) Cuz I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low / do I look like a mindreader sir? I don’t know / Am I under arrest sir or should I guess some mo? / (cop) well you was doin 55 in a 54 / license and registration and step outta the car / you carryin a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are”. Instant classic.
“Public Service Announcement (Interlude)” Jay raps 2 verses between two public speakers giving short speeches, and he still can’t seem to let up, he’s bringing fire thoroughly. “Justify My Thug” was supposed to have Madonna on there sampling her old song “Justify My Love”, but some scheduling difficulties kept her from making the guest appearance so Jigga grabbed someone else for the hook. For the first time since track 3 Jay-z isn’t on the chorus, but he is still breathing lyrical love: “Mr. President there’s drugs in our residence / tell me what you want me to do, come break bread with us / Mr. Governor, I swear there’s a coverup / every other corner there’s a liquor store, the f*** is up?”. Well, if he’s looking for suggestions, then he could stop bragging on slanging coke maybe? Hmmmm.
Kanye returns to produce “Lucifer”, (he still has the touch) and the beat is sick with it, there’s a sample of someone saying “Lucifer, son of the morning, I’m gonna chase you out of here”. Jay gets a little emotional and recalls his friend Bobalob’s death: “I got dreams of holdin a nine milla to Bob’s killa / askin him why as my eyes fill up / these days I can’t wake up with a dry pilla / gone, but not forgotten homes I still feel ya / so curse the day that birthed the bastard / who caused your church mass / reverse the crash / reverse the blast / then reverse the car / reverse the day, and there you are / Bobalob”, and then it cuts off beautifully as it cuts to the next song.
The Neptunes show back up on “Allure”, a real soft beat brought to life by piano, strings and someone humming faintly in the back, sounds like it could’ve been on “Reasonable Doubt”. Hovito chants his own chorus: “I solemnly swear to change my approach / stop shavin coke / stay away from hoes / put down the toast cuz I be doin the most / (oh no) / but everytime I felt that was that / it called me right back / it called me right back / man it called me right back”. I appreciate this song, it’s not all that complicated yet it’s a very mature song, very Sinatra.
He wraps up his career with (ironically) “My 1st Song”, and here he brings out the blues and absolutely kills it with a switch up in his style and timing. The song intro has Biggie Smalls talking about how to stay hungry and stay fresh in the studio, that’s when Jay drops some hotness, he goes out on this note: “This is my second major breakup / my first was with a pager / with a hoopty, a cookpot and the game / this one’s with the stew, with the stage with the fortune / (maybe not the fortune) but certainly the fame”, the song fades out as Jigga gives a ton of shout-outs and reminesces a bit.
This would be a very difficult record to deny its props on, he thoroughly kills it on every single track, between the beats, the hooks, the interludes and even the little knick-knacks he throws in such as “Gladiator” bytes and Cedric the Entertainer, I simply can’t criticize this album. Don’t get me wrong, my critical mind wants to find something wrong, but I just cannot find any major flaws. On my first listen I thought that the album was kind of weak, then I peeped it again, and began to see the light, by the fourth time I began to see the brilliance, I’ve listened to it around 14 times now and I’m still finding some crazy flo I didn’t notice before. The CD is definitely one of his more mature works (if not the pinnacle), he creatively brought innovation and kept it on a higher plane than his typical work, he even does nine out of the twelve hooks himself where most people are only interested in using the overused R&B singer. Nothing short of amazing.
Now the last thing I wanted to address is his retirement. What do I mean by that? He isn’t really retiring in my opinion. I’m sure he’ll step away for a while, maybe 2 or 3 years, but I have zero doubt that he’ll be back just like Scarface did, just like Jordan, whom he always compares himself to, and he even brings it up in “Encore”: “as fate would have it / Jay’s status appears to be at an all time high / perfect time to say good-bye / when I come back like Jordan wearin the 4-5 / it ain’t to play games with you”. I’m sure he’ll be busy managing Beyoncê’s career and everything, and making guest appearances and hitting up the mixtape circuit, but in a few years he’ll miss the stage and create a huge comeback, mark my words, it ain’t over for Hova. 5 Planets.
The Black Album Track Listing:
2. December 4th
3. What More Can I Say
5. Change Clothes
6. Dirt Off Your Shoulder
8. Moment of Clarity
9. 99 Problems
11. Justify My Thug
14. My 1st Song
5 out of 5