The Black Album
ay-Z. A man now so incredibly successful, critically and commercially, that he is invulnerable. Unassailable. Like the Colossus, his mighty stride casts a shadow over popular music that it doesn't matter if it is loved or hated. It is THERE, it must be reckoned with, acknowledged, and respected as a product of some sort of stupendous will.
Perhaps that’s why he’s billed The Black Album as his swan song. He’s already on top; he’s got nowhere else to go. The Blueprint was the decisive blow against Hov’s few remaining enemies, establishing him as the unquestioned hip hop hegemon. The album’s sequel was a messy victory celebration – long, overindulgent, but with enough gems that ill-conceived collaborations with Lenny Kravitz and lukewarm singles were easily forgiven (as if Jay needed our forgiveness!). With all debts settled, Jay-Z announced his retirement from music, perhaps pulling a King Lear: abdicating his throne as a test of his fans’ love for all things Roc-a-Fella – can the diverse domains of the Diplomats, State Property, Dirt McGirt, and Kanye West hold without the unifying force of a powerful, charismatic leader?
Unfortunately, The Black Album is no complex Shakespearean tragedy. Getting out of the game now reeks more of Seinfeld syndrome, especially with final results as mediocre as this. The only saving grace is that talks of retirement are doubtlessly little more than a marketing scheme: Jay has already admitted that he’ll still cut records and make cameos, remaining as vague as possible as what his definition of retirement actually entails. Yes, The Black Album is a disappointment (as practically any album with such an excess of hype would be), but this fact alone necessitates the return of Hova to clear his name when the future of his legacy is in doubt.
Expectations are not the only thing that cause The Black Album to drag. Jay-Z, the monolith himself, sounds drained, almost tired. Too many MOR beats may be to blame. For all the hubbub about a superstar producer list, musically the album doesn’t live up. The Neptunes are straight in smooth neo-Sinatra mode (a la “Excuse Me Miss” and “Frontin’”) with the bland first single “Change Clothes” and the sleepy-eyed “The Theatre.” Kanye West’s “Encore” aspires to similar Vegas-revue antics (indeed, Jay-Z’s Unplugged album shows that, should this withdrawal from recording stick, he has a future in Sin City), but the canned applause just doesn’t elevate the energy level like it was intended to. DJ Quik’s “Justify My Thug” should have never made the cut.
But The Black Album’s failings fall upon Jay-Z’s shoulders as much as his producers. The Blueprint achieved its success because each song had focus and vision; The Black Album suffers from too much focus on Jay-Z himself. Sure, hip hop has always been about bravado and self-promotion, et cetera, but that’s no excuse for subject matter that comes off as so uninspired. “December 4th” tries to fill in the back-story to the myth, but what hasn’t already been filled in by countless interviews and MTV specials? His father leaves his home, he turns to hustling for money, then graduates to rapping. We already know Jay-Z’s struggle to success and he is celebrated for it; such repetition (punctuated by canned narration from his mother) makes the biography trite. Indeed, the album’s next track sums up Jay-Z’s dilemma nicely: What more can he say? He’s such an uber-presence in pop culture that more autobiography is superfluous. Treating warmed-over subject matter with such dreadful seriousness (typified by the absurdly melodramatic “Moment of Clarity” – Eminem’s “serious” productions often cause my eyes to roll) does more damage to Jay-Z’s cred than a hundred “Ethers” could. “I built the Dynasty by being one of the realest niggas out there”— Jay-Z, we already know!
Jay-Z has far more success with story raps (the Rick Rubin-produced banger “99 Problems”) and his trademark haute couture party jams (“Dirt Off Your Shoulders,” by the ever-reliable Timbaland). And truthfully, even the lesser songs are elevated by Jay’s abundance of talent, charisma, and character. But repeated listens continually expose the weakness of The Black Album: it relies too much on a shaky promotional gimmick for inspiration. Next time (and there will be a next time), Jay should focus on the music instead of the marketing – his follow-up definitely has something to prove.
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-11-14