Even after mainstream’s new poster boy, 50 Cent, moved his
G-Unit album up to challenge Jay-Z’s release date, Jay
outsold 50 by nearly 100,000 copies as well as beating out a new
Tupac CD to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart —another
notch onto the legendary career of Sean Carter.

Mira Levitan

With a career marked by braggadocio, mainstream love, street
acceptance and a confidence that many rappers flaunt but rarely
back up, many wondered what Jay was going to do for his purported
final album. Originally setting out to create a true black album
with little promotion, a different producer for each song, no
singles, no videos and no guest appearances, The Black Album
is a somewhat different product. This is made clear by the
Neptunes-produced club single and video “Change
Clothes,” an ode to the nightlife and runways in NYC.

As far as the theme, Jay-Z stays true. The feeling of finality
pervades the entire album and it makes for an interesting listen.
It’s still a slight detraction that by track three he’s
already saying goodbye. We know you’re leaving, just make
music.

The final production list is slightly less balanced than
advertised, but still incredible as Kanye West, the Neptunes and
Just Blaze produce two tracks each while hip-hop mainstays such as
Dr. Dre and DJ Premier don’t make the final listing. The
newcomers shine as Aqua and Buchanan lace some surprisingly good
beats, while some of the veteran efforts are lackluster. The
Timbaland beat is too heavy and DJ Quik’s “Justify My
Thug” sounds forced. Eminem’s production skills seem to
have topped out as his beats share one sound. Pharrell chips in a
hot club beat on “Change Clothes,” though it seems
phoned in.

Lyrically Jay shows no signs of a punch-drunk veteran struggling
to keep up, as he is at the top of his form. At this point of his
career he knows song structure, melodies and hooks better than
most, which has contributed to his consistency and longevity. He
even employs a new whisper-like delivery on several tracks, showing
his continuing growth. On tracks like “December 4th”
Jay sheds his bravado and gives one of his most personal songs to
date. His lyrics, at times, are more intimate and confessional than
ever, and the writing is his most immediate. The most fascinating
and controversial track is his self-deconstruction on “Moment
of Clarity,” where he basically explains that he dumbed down
his style because it sold more.

What really brings this album down is that at moments it feels
like Jay’s senior dissertation as to why he is the greatest
rapper ever, and it sounds more insecure than definitive. Imagine
Hendrix restating his guitar expertise onstage or Jordan
proclaiming his greatness at every press conference. Just play.
Regardless, Jay has no reason to go, and you can’t help but
wish that Jay has an MJ-like retirement and comes back with the
conscious underground album that he has in him.

Rating: 4 stars.

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