Back For One More Score: JAY-Z's 'The Black Album' Turns 15
For what he deemed would be his finale, Jay sought to reveal more of himself than he ever had.
Jay-Z has never seemed particularly obsessed with endings. But from the moment he formally introduced himself, his work has betrayed a deep affinity for crime cinema, its trappings, and the self-made, larger-than-life outlaws the genre immortalizes, from Reasonable Doubt’s mafioso-style album art to the mannerisms of a young Bobby De Niro that he displays throughout, an affinity he used to help set himself apart from his peers. More Frank Lucas, than Ludacris. Gangster movies depend on their conclusions. Crime must be followed by punishment, at least by the laws of the Motion Picture Production Code. The sympathetic protagonist falls victim to their own hubris: cue the sirens and the alphabet boys, or that enemy they grossly underrated. Jay-Z saw himself in those antiheroes. But in terms of their endings, he saw himself as the exception: “I’ll tell you half the story, the rest you fill it in—as long as the villain win.”
Endings often come off as the most important part of any story. It shouldn’t be this way—plenty of great art remains great art even in lieu of an imperfect conclusion. But endings have the power to inform perceptions around everything that preceded them. Endings are crucial. Endings are necessary. A story that’s allowed to extend is a story that risks floundering; floundering begets aimlessness that could render the original path lost forever. If the gangster doesn’t die, he gets chubby.
Jay-Z never seemed particularly obsessed with endings, but setting his own ending on his own terms fits with everything we’ve come to know about Shawn Corey Carter’s character. Of course the man who started his own label when no others would take him, who would later go on to start his own streaming service when no others gave him the respect he expected, would opt to leave the game on his own terms. It’s the when of it all that really threw people.
The gangsters in Jay’s favorite movies didn’t cash out. De Niro turned back. Tony Montana went out in a blaze of glory. Carlito never made his train. Seven albums after he spoiled the ending, Hova decided to prove he was the exception after all, by exiting on his apex, an exercise in will and restraint that no made man before him, real or fictional had been able to master.
In 2003, when Jay-Z declared his impending eighth LP, The Black Album would also be his last, it’s not as if the writing was on the wall for his run. Just the opposite in fact: in 2003, Roc-a-Fella was titanic.
Roc-a-Fella may have been in the midst of an imperial phase at the time, but Jay’s solo discography was coming off a bit of a stumble. Widespread public opinion courtesy of a Hot 97 poll pegged him as the loser in his beef with Nas. (Although those on the right side of history know “Ether” should’ve been pit against “Takeover,” not “Super Ugly.”) And he followed The Blueprint—at once a statement album, an instant classic, and contender for his defining work—with a bloated double album sequel that spawned hits both enduring and underrated, but nonetheless obscured many of its gems under its own largesse.
So Jay’s approaching The Black Album with not one but two dual grand statements to make. A retirement, and a reminder. In a freestyle over 50 Cent’s “If I Can’t,” Jay described Blueprint 2 as “trying to be modest.” Well if a 25 track album represents modesty, what’s it look like when Jigga takes the gloves off? Allow him to reintroduce himself.
The Jay-Z we meet on The Black Album has a chip on his shoulder. Nitpick his album, side with Nas, question his value? Fine, maybe you’ll love him when he fades to black. That sentiment pervades the majority of the album but the criticisms are met head-on early in “What More Can I Say,” a song as boastful as it is bothered. A clip from Gladiator sets the tone for Jay’s coliseum mindset, sauntering onto the track ready to combat every detraction levied at him in one fell swoop, and disgusted that he has to do so in the first place. It’s a mission statement to explain his retirement mindset while also arguing that his achievements speak for themself anyway. It’s a thrilling mood setter...and that’s before the last 30-seconds, which remain as some of the most direct chest-thumping Jay-Z has ever done on wax to date, a thesis statement for why he matters most in a game populated with peers who may have more colorful character, more exciting backstories etc. It’s Shawn standing up in a room full of his compatriots, loudly declaring, with respect, that he’s better than them, punctuated with a literal mic drop.
“And no I ain't get shot up a whole bunch of times
Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines
And I ain't animated like, say, a Busta Rhymes
But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I'm supposed to be number one on everybody list!
We'll see what happens when I no longer exist
Fuck this, man!”
The Jay-Z we meet on The Black Album is revealing. That same chip doesn’t just yield aggressive reassertion, it allows for insight. Literally, the first bars on the album are “You ain’t gotta feel no way about Jay, but at least let me explain why I’m this way.” In his episode of MTV Diary, Jay, then on his fifth album (Dynasty...Roc La Familia), explained each project always contains at least one song that’s deeply personal. For what he deemed would be his finale, Jay sought to reveal more of himself than he ever had. The album could’ve opened with the confrontational “What More,” but tellingly, it starts proper with “December 4th,” a coming of age story that trades a hook for narrated forewords from his mother Gloria. Later on the album, his father Adnis, whose abandonment had long been a source of raw resentment in past verses, is the subject of one moment of clarity, revealed to have passed but not before they reconciled. Even the harder songs carry an undercurrent of emotion. “Lucifer” finds Jay admitting “he can’t wake up with a dry pillow” over the sudden death of a friend, crying even in dreams as he fantasizes confronting his killer as his “eyes fill up.” The unreleased “Pop the Burner,” offers even more subversion: “I don’t walk around with a gun cuz it’s a style / I walk around with one cuz I don’t wanna miss my child.” “99 Problems” is all bass-thumping bravado but the third verse betrays anxieties of where Jay fears acting on those sentiments will land him: “back in the Kit Kat.” Which is to say back in cuffs, with everything he worked so hard to build threatened to be taken away over a bullshit club fight.
That openness is reflected in ancillary ways as well. At least, that was the intention. The release of the album was set to be accompanied by The Black Book, an autobiography co-written by the writer dream hampton, whom Jay maintained a close relationship with since the late ‘90s. Ultimately the undertaking, although completed, proved too personal. In 2005 he told Rolling Stone “I thought I was OK with it, but as it got closer and closer, I said, ‘What am I doing?’ Just someone having your life in their hands made me like, ‘I ain’t doin’ this shit.' I can’t read it, by the way.”
The Jay-Z we meet on The Black Album is assertive. As he’d describe in making-of footage, filler was unacceptable, each track needed a statement behind it. The ultimate goal: reaffirming his love for the game—and his ability to influence and body it. The original outline for the album detailed 12 tracks that would each have a different producer, consisting of: popular talent he’d collaborated with before (Eminem, Dr. Dre, Trackmasters, Timbaland); producers he helped put on to the mainstream, who in turn culled some of his best performances (Kanye West, Just Blaze, The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz); legends he’d worked with on his debut who would help the album achieve a full circle feeling (DJ Premier, DJ Ski); and legends he’d yet to work with like Rick Rubin and DJ Quik. Of course, Swizz, Ski, Premier and The Trackmasters wound up not making the final album, while other producers were revisited twice. But that call sheet, both original and final, is a murderers row that speaks to Jay’s ambitions for his finale, collaborators who were an inextricable part of his journey, from his influence on them to their influence on him.
Observe, in the studio footage, the way Kanye sells Jay on the “Lucifer” beat with his own bars, in effect teeing Jay to take it to a further, more personal place than he could’ve imagined. Or how Kanye reverse-engineers a dramatic concert moment Jay would go on to employ numerous times in “Encore.” Note the way Pharrell beams, proudly boasting that he’s scored the exact mood Jay’s aiming to create with a beat that evokes the ending of Carlito’s Way. My favorite of the studio scenes though, is Jay’s trip to see Timbaland, who he’d been returning to for next-level bounce since they linked in 1998. The two old friends playfully spar, with Timb presenting new beats with ascending levels of fire, as Jay chides that maybe his go-to doesn’t have what he’s looking for this time around. Finally Timb plays a hard-hitting speaker knocker with a recurring note that feels like a teleportation sound effect. Jay’s smile drains, suddenly he’s zoned out to the point of near astral projection. “Dirt off Your Shoulder” is born shortly after; Timbaland proudly chugs a gallon of juice, his work accomplished with no sweats broken.
As a regrettably deleted bar from “Dirt” makes plain, Jay’s reputation was known for his ability “to murder everything that moves whether OutKast fast, or Houston smooth.” Reminders of his lyrical prowess abound. “Threat” offers respite from the grandiosity of the album for pure escapist fun, with one technically dazzling couplet after another. The album closer, “My 1st Song,” rightfully revisits umlaut-era Jay’s doubletime flow. And “99 Problems” is a masterstroke in storytelling, with three verses that offer three twists on theme and perspective, marrying Jay’s own anecdotes with greater social commentary.
Times that by my influence on pop culture. Some of Jay’s most indelible contributions to music, pop culture, and the culture can be traced back to The Black Album. Before every song had accompanying, viral-bait dance challenges, the simplistic shoulder swipe of “Dirt off Your Shoulder” went from 106 & Park all the way to nationally televised presidential debates as a commonly understood shorthand for disaffect. With “Change Clothes,” Jay used his album’s lead single to flaunt his maturity through a sartorial filter, thusly cementing his status as a tastemaker. Throwback jerseys, a trend he previously helped popularize, were objectively deaded; button-down shirts became the much cooler-sounding button-ups. Change was affected as widely as my 9th-grade student body and as high up as NBA commissioner David Stern’s stock portfolio, who would later beg for Jay to please bring jerseys back if he would be so kind—Kelly Ripa and Naomi Campbell appeared in the video. Then there’s “99 Problems,” the Rick Rubin collab Jay sought out as part of the album’s theme of paying tribute to his origins, with a beat that harkens back to the rap he grew up on. It remains a top showcase of Jay’s song construction and storytelling prowess; it remains one of his most electric live show go-tos. Trumped only, of course, by “Public Service Announcement,” the 11th hour Just Blaze addition that plays more like a state of the union. Can you imagine the album without it? It’s the hinge the project turns on, a throat-clearing definitive “living testament” and final statement on the thesis presented across the preceding nine tracks, before giving way to the album’s quieter moments in its conclusion.
The Jay-Z we meet on The Black Album is pensive and reflective. On “Moment of Clarity,” Jay admits he minimized his technical skill to maximize profits: once the RIAA figures for Vol. 2 came in, any desire to rhyme like Common Sense was put to the backburner. And yet, a Jay-Z filtering his bars for commercial appeal is still one who can rightfully marvel elsewhere on the album that he only got this far because “the shit I uttered, was utterly ridiculous.” Which is to say, he sounds at peace with his decision. On Black Album, Jay-Z’s reflective musings beget conclusive statements. “Allure,” the crown jewel of the album as well as Jay’s discography, bolds and underlines his commitment to walking away with a hustler’s prayer: “I solemnly swear / to change my approach / cause I be doing the most.” “December 4th” bids “goodbye to the game, to the spoils, the adrenaline rush.” He’s talking about the streets, but the duality is crystal clear. As “My 1st Song” attributes, receding from the industry will stand as his “second major break-up.”
The Black Album may play like Scorsese/de Palma fanfic, but its accompanying docu-concert-film Fade to Black is the hardest superhero movie outside of The Dark Knight. It’s where I always direct cynics who decried Jay’s retirement as a mere two-pronged marketing ploy to sell both this album and the inevitable comeback. This sentiment was genuine, damn it. The film and the concert it depicts prove it. As Fade to Black helpfully contextualizes, prior to that night, hip-hop in The Garden, respective of itself and outside of any accompanying R&B act or radio festival, had been unheard of for years.
With that responsibility, plus the subject of his retirement before him, Jay delivers a tour de force retelling of his career, contextualizing the setlist by marquee moments and eras. The evening’s significance to hip-hop is evident in the A-list audience: Slick Rick, Common, Puffy, to name a few, there not for stage cameos but to bear witness. The Roc gets their moment to shine, a testament to the legacy Jay built that extends beyond his solo career. Foxy Brown and Mary J. Blige join a pinstripe-suited Jay, harkening back to Reasonable Doubt. R.Kelly and Jay are ice-cold in matching all-white fits, flexing their status as the best of both worlds (different times). Pharrell skates out later alongside Jay in a crisp button-up as he runs through the best of that trademark Neptune sound. But by night’s end, Jay dons a throwback one last time for a rousing performance of “December 4th” to close the show out. Earlier in the night, Afeni Shakur and Voletta Wallace appeared on stage as Jay paid tribute to their sons. By the end of the night, the subtext was plain: Jay-Z was the next face alongside them on rap’s Mt. Rushmore.
I was at that show, all of 13 years-old with great seats courtesy of a great Dad who understood that I needed to be there. I’ve seen Jay at least eight or nine times live since (a Kingdom Come release show at the Hammerstein, Blueprint 3 Tour, Watch the Throne Tour, Legends of the Summer Tour, Tidal B-Sides, 4:44 Tour, On the Run II). All great shows, but none compare to that evening. To be in The Garden that night felt like being a living part of history, a witness to a lit Irish wake. The mood in the crowd was somber in the most celebratory way. Watching Fade to Black from the flipside of the perspective, Jay earnestly reflects that mood right back.
There are a litany of notable things in Fade to Black: how Michael freaking Buffer intro’d the concert while raising a Carter “4” jersey into The Garden rafters; a rare glimpse of TyTy actually speaking; how Beyonce is one of the only guests to get her own solo mini-set and the way she pauses to scan the Garden crowd before tearing it down, already the master of all she surveys just five months after her debut album; the peeks it offers into Jay’s mysterious creative process. But above all, it cements Jay’s transition from the game’s godfather to its president, from made man to Superman. The backstage toast afterwards feels like a real denouement, a ride off into the sunset. Destination: somewhere with no mosquitoes.
The Black Album’s influence on rap was felt far and wide, even as Jay ultimately lost the Grammy to Kanye’s genre-shifting debut, The College Dropout. As Jay ascended to Def Jam’s executive office, the genre’s rising new class of stars used his retirement manifesto to interpolate new hits. Philly spitter Cassidy flipped the last bars of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” into a new hustler’s anthem. Below the Mason-Dixon, T.I. chopped a threat from “What More Can I Say” into his buoyant classic, “Bring Em Out.” Juvenile muddied Timbaland’s Virginia bounce into something suitable for the dirty south in “Way I Be Leanin.” Comedians lending their talents to album cuts became more common in the wake of Cedric The Entertainer’s hilarious feature on the underrated “Threat.” Meanwhile Jay maintained his presence and his rarefied air with event guest verses that served as both co-signs and reminders that he was still out there, watching and writing. Of course, as we know now, even that distanced proximity to his old environment was enough to ultimately pull Hovito all the way back in. Jay conceded the inevitability of his own return even while rapping about his retirement. Even on his way out, he foresaw the day he’d get the itch again and “come back like Jordan, wearing the 4-5.” “PSA” warns that “users aren’t the only abusers,” and we all know what comes after the resolution in “Allure”: “Every time I felt that was that, they call me right back.” Oh, no?
On a loosie colloquially known as “Addicted to the Game,” Jay likened his album discography to a Rubik’s Cube: “Every album’s a color, but I fuck up the other color.” The dramatic pregnant pause between “other” and “color” in Jay’s delivery encapsulates the weariness in all artists who have made something universally great—the acknowledgment that all future art is subjected to its shadow. “Addicted” was reportedly borne out of Blueprint sessions; the Rubik’s line is a fitting summary of the critical and commercial trajectory of the four albums in between it and RD. But that discography descriptor rings even truer of his back catalog, beginning with Kingdom Come, his comeback album titled after the famous comic series that heralded Superman’s return. To put it back in context with cinema terms more familiar to Jay-Z, he went back for one more score.
Simply put, if Kingdom Come was actually the product of a multi-year retirement-and-return conspiracy and not a relapse from a man who told us numerous times over that he’s addicted to the game, it’d be a tighter album. As it stands now, it falters not from lack of skill—the guest verses in between albums are some of Jay’s best; the freestyle he laid down with Funkmaster Flex during KC promo was an instant classic—but instead a light atrophy of creativity, song craftsmanship, and focus. Still, the Rubik’s colors were indeed fucked up. Less than one year later, Jay course-corrected with American Gangster, an album many fans adore to a point of ranking it top five within his discography. Two years after that he sought out a commercial reassertion with a Blueprint threequel. It worked beyond his wildest aims. In 2009, Jay’s commercial popularity was higher than it had ever been, yielding his first No. 2 and No. 1 Hot 100 songs as lead artist. On his 11th album. On the eve of his 40th birthday. A feat unheard of and previously unimaginable in hip-hop. Watch the Throne saw him thoughtfully ruminate on those heights alongside Kanye, once his protege, now his peer. Critical tastes for these albums varies, but KC onward spawned a universal perception of a clear demarcation: pre-retirement Jay-Z and post. Was the return worth it?
4:44 posits a resounding yes. It took four albums, but on his most recent solo effort Jay-Z not only finally solved the Rubik’s Cube, but like Michael Corleone, he settled all family business in one fell swoop. Years removed, he’s still learning from his cinematic counterpart’s mistakes.
“A man that don't take care his family can't be rich
I watched Godfather, I missed that whole shit
My consciousness was Michael's common sense
I missed the karma that came as a consequence.”
The final music video released for Black Album was “99 Problems,” The Mark Romanek-directed clip ends with Jay’s death, gunned down in front of the Marcy Projects, a final statement on his retirement. But he didn’t die—he lived, long enough to see himself become the villain. Once universally beloved, now looked at as a veteran who eschewed a perfect exit for a comeback with fluctuating returns.
It would take 14 years for Shawn to actually kill Jay-Z, and become the hero again. The bloodletting and subsequent rebuilding of his ego and hubris birthed a new, improved Jay-Z one with the maturity and tools to finally air his demons and insecurities out fully. That MTV Diary boast that four songs on Dynasty were deeply personal? Seems quaint now. Releasing an autobiography made him uncomfortable? 4:44 is The Black Book on wax. The growth didn’t stop there either. On this year’s joint album with his wife, Jay raps that he “never knew a luh-love like this.” He finally got to rhyme like Common Sense. “Post-retirement Jay” is one who improved upon and heightened his cultural status and overall impact. Would he feel free enough to favor flows that hew closer to spoken-word on songs like “Story of O.J.” or “Moonlight” without the currency his late-aughts commercial success added to his cache? Is a stumble or two along the journey worth it for the purposeful preachings of black excellence and generational wealth across WTT, 4:44 and Everything Is Love?
In one of Fade to Black’s best scenes, Jay and a peer discuss the streets, and how they used to be worse. “That’s what it takes,” Jay reasons, “People to keep speaking out.” “You’re not that type of rapper,” his friend rebuts matter-of-factly. “For two lines—30 seconds out of a 60-minute tape, I felt like saying something to speak on about what’s going on in the hood. Should I not do that? Should I ignore these feelings?” He’s asking his man as much as he is asking himself. Part of the genius of Jay-Z’s music has always been his ability to code consequence and advice into his rhymes: “I’m here to tell niggas it ain’t all swell/There’s heaven and then there’s hell.” “Hov did that, so hopefully you don’t have to go for that.” At 48 and five solo albums later, he’s finally worked through that doubt and uncertainty in that Fade scene, surfacing the topics he’d rather talk about to plain text instead of subtext. The hustler’s mentality has afforded new ways to keep his dollars doubling without dumbing down. Refining his voice while refining maturity awarded room to grow without sacrificing his appeal, to offer elder statesman wisdom without sounding preachy. The Jay-Z we see before us today was worth the un-retirement and subsequent journey he embarked on to get here, give or take a few growing pains.
On Watch the Throne’s “Illest Motherfucker Alive” Jay-Z laid his rebuke of the gangster’s ending out plainly:
“Know when to leave when the heat is coming, I learned that
This is where De Niro would be, if he ain’t turn back
Fuck Sosa, this Hova—this is real life
This is what the ending of Scarface should feel like!”
Of course, Fade to Black ends with Jay and Bey piling into a Maybach and driving out of the Garden toward idyllic retirement just like De Niro and Amy Brenneman in Heat. Jay did turn back, just not into a hail of bullets. There’s no typical path for him to take anymore, the story’s grown “too wide to fit inside the lining.” A 50 year-old rapper who’s not retired, not irrelevant and still contending for Album of the Year? We’re in deeply uncharted territory here. Still, Black Album presented the perfect walk-off, and Jay knows it. In 2007, he admitted to Elliott WIlson that he’d “pulled the retirement ripcord” too many times. “I want to never say that again. Just make the albums, man. And if one day people wake up and it's four years later, and you haven't made another, they go, 'Wait a minute, you're retired!' I think that's best for me.”
And so it’s gone for “post-retirement” Jay-Z. Years go by between albums. Blink twice, he’s fresh out of the studio with a new rollout and accompanying tour. But blink three times? He may not even be here anymore. Not a storm of bullets like Montana, nor a smash cut to black like Soprano. Not an Irish wake, but an Irish exit. The farewell’s been done. One day he’ll actually board that metaphorical train to Miami, a trip we can’t come along on. Five, 10 years from now, the sun will rise on an empty studio, and we’re gonna miss Jay-Z. Where we going to for breakfast?