November 4, 2003
ALBUM REVIEW: Jay-Z's Black Album
As you all surely know Jay-Z's long-awaited Black Album was leaked on MP3 yesterday, sparking the biggest downloading frenzy since the Great "Hail to the Thief" Epidemic of March 30th 2003. Jay (according to okayplayer) is pissed and mystified by the leakage, and planning to move the release date two weeks earlier, to nov. 14th.
My preliminary review? Hard to make a call on this one, because I've really never been able to swallow a Jay-Z album whole. It's like when I was a kid, I once bought 50 caramels from the store and tried to eat all of them at once. At first it seemed like a dream come true, but when I got halfway through they started to taste like peanut butter and I didn't want to see another caramel for a week.
For some reason that's what Jay has always been like for me, tasty in small doses but a whole album tastes like peanut butter. I would never deny he is a brilliant emcee, and I always enjoy hearing him on the radio or in a club, but I never feel the urge to put on one of his albums or go out of my way to hear him.
That being said, I did quite enjoy my first run-through of The Black Album. Much of it is driven by the lush classic-soul loops that Kanye and Just Blaze have made the new standard, plus a few doses of the obligatory Neptunery. Rick Rubin serves up raw guitar and drums (think Raising Hell outtake) for "99 Problems", in line with Jay's original plan for a strictly back-to-basics raw hip-hop album. Timbaland's offering is also spare and kinda retro, perhaps trying to fit that original mold. Most downloaders seem lukewarm on this one so far but I dig it, maybe I'm biased when it comes to Timbo. Okayplayer hero 9th Wonder (of Little Brother) delivers a highlight with "Threat", and giving props to 9th may help Jay quell the underground heads who are angered by the absence of Primo.
DJ Quik has quite a following as a beatmaker but his contribution here, "Justify My Thug", will not bring me into the flock. Yes the chorus is what you are thinking it must be, and it sounds just as corny as you are thinking it must be. On "Moment of Clarity" Eminem drops another of his bland Korg Triton noodlings, which everyone but me seems to like, so who am I to judge? On this track Jay spits a line sure to be quoted in many reviews:
if skills sold, truth be told
Which at first sounds like a mighty cool thing to say, until you listen a few more times and ask yourself "but really why couldn't he be rhyming like Kweli right now?" He's surely sold enough already that he can go the Prince route and do whatever he feels from now on, without fretting over charts and plaques. He doesn't need to keep making pop hits, he is choosing to stay on that path, so although I like hearing him say it this line also rings hollow in my ears. Not to mention how the last line implies that early in his career he did rhyme like Common Sense, which is a phase I must have missed. (Whether Common rhymes like Common Sense anymore is a debate for another day).
But this is nothing new, Jay-Z has always tried to play both sides of the "conscious" fence. He tells us his rhymes about the drug game are only cautionary tales that he spits so his young fans "won't have to go through that", yet he constantly leans on that drug game experience as basis for his credibility, as proof he is more "real" than Nas and other foes, and so on. You can't have it both ways, Jigga, either you're proud of selling rocks or you're not.
Regardless, Hova's revelation of his inner boho is only one of countless quotables on the album, as Jay proves yet again he is among the nicest to ever touch a mic. Actually the line that has lingered most in my mind (for its sheer oddity) is on "What More Can I Say", where he proclaims himself "the martha stewart who's far from jewish". I'm sure the Prime Minister of Malaysia just breathed a sigh of relief..
This has been endlessly hyped as Jay's final album (although I can't imagine anyone actually believes that) and he spends much of it wistfully recounting his life story and pointing out all his virtues that you will truly understand once he's gone. It's like he knows he will never get the adulation Pac and Biggie earned by passing away, so he's getting the next best thing by telling us he too must disappear now, and then writing a eulogy for himself.
Dunno if he succeeds at that, but as faux-farewell albums go you could do far worse. I'm betting he's smart enough to wait at least 2 years before his return, so he can make the "comeback" album seem like a major event.
EDIT: For those who read this far, as a reward I'll let you know there is an exclusive Jay-Z MP3 up on our main page right now, a live performance on our radio show back in 1995.