Album: The Black Album
Label: Def Jam
Rating: 5 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
Its taken over a week to write this review. Rewrite after rewrite, restart after restart. Why? Well for the first time in a long time I’ve been confused by an album… and describing my feelings of confusion in word form has been a struggle. Y’see, to paraphrase Mr. Meth, when it comes to Jigga, ‘y’all DO know me and you DO know my style’ – Jay-Z is one of my favourite emcees… to me he has everything – the voice, the lyrics, the flow, the confidence and wit – the total package. And yet, he hasn’t made a solid album in my opinion since “Reasonable Doubt”. Sure every joint he’s released since has had its fair share of heaters, but they’ve also been laden with filler – as if Shawn Carter had grown TOO comfortable making made-for-MTV joints and had fallen into the trap of dropping a gem or two and padding it with bollocks, knowing it would still sell out the ass.
And so, imagine my surprise / horror / dismay / disappointment when I discovered that “The Black Album”, the final chapter in the Jay-Z story, the album that was going to be the “Reasonable Doubt” of 2003, the one where Jay-Z did HIS thing, rather than the MTV thing to supposedly solidify his rep, had NO instantly attractive cuts. Skimming this before settling down for a proper listen, and scanning the producer list – a list handpicked by Jay-Z, doubts were already growing. Where’s Primo? Who’s Aqua? Why is 9th Wonder on here? Rick fucking RUBIN? Rick Rubin bringing rock guitars? On actually hearing the album, I had this down as a 2 out of 10 – easily. Nothing stood out, nothing grabbed me as being instantly accessible. Rather than go into rant mood I took a few deep breaths and decided to come back to it the next day and relisten.
And nothing changed. Still I gave the man the benefit of the doubt – there had to be SOMETHING there to grab me, something hidden on here that I just wasn’t getting first time (or second, or third time around). So I waited, and listened, and waited and listened… and slowly…
The shit started to grow on me a little – not to any great degree, but enough to rescue it from the lowly mark that it was originally destined to be tagged with. Anyway, enough rambling lets kick this off… ladies and gentlemen, “The Black Album” dissected, Altrap-style…
One of things that became apparent with Jay’s decision to have a different producer on almost every track, is that this album lacks any kind of cohesive flow. You could toss this album on random play and get the same listening result – there doesn’t seem to be any thought to the sequencing of tracks on this album, which results in some strange peaks and dips as you move through it. For all intensive purposes, you need to get the fact that this is supposed to be an “album” out of your head – look at this instead as a collection of various Jay-Z tracks (and yes I know that’s what it is anyway, but y’all know what I mean, I hope.)
At least he got the opener right. After a short introductory beat, ‘December 4th’ kicks off with a fanfare of horns and strings and some words from Jigga’s mommy. Just Blaze again provides more evidence that he keeps his best beats for Jay, with the anthemic strings and the hard edged claps proving to be an ideal backdrop for Jay to get all autobiographical on that ass. In between verses, Mrs Carter reminisces on her son’s childhood with a few short sentences on his past setting the scene for Jigga to expand on what she says, and explain why and how these events took place. The ending is especially poignant with Jay apologising to his mother, his audience, and seemingly himself for his wrong-doings coming up…
“I pray I’m forgiven
For every bad decision I’ve made, every sister I’ve played
Cos I’m still paranoid to this day
And its nobody’s fault, I made the decisions I made
This is the life I chose, or rather this the life that chose me
If you can’t respect that your whole perspective is wack
Maybe you’ll love me when I fae to black.”
The first dip in proceedings comes in with ‘What More Can I Say’. Produced by the Buchanans, this cut comes off like a reject from the original “Blueprint” sessions – its got the whole Just Blaze / Kanye West rip-off thing going on without actually pulling it off competently, and the cheesy, almost faux-rock star crooning on the hook and throughout the song is a wrist-slitter. Which is a shame cos at points throughout this, Jay’s lyrics are sharp as a tack, and the ending should really have ensured that this cut came LAST on the album. If this really IS Jay-Z’s last album, then what better way to go out than cutting off the wack beat, and going acapella?
“With the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat a buncha times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I supposed to be number one on everybody list
We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist….”
The next couple of tracks have radio play written all over em, proven by the release of ‘Change Clothes’ as the lead single. The Neptunes signature sound is stamped all over this – uptempo, bouncy, club-happy, with Pharrell doing his usual Pharrell-ing all over the hook. More interesting however is ‘Encore’ by Kanye West. The Roc’s own producer-on-the-mic goes all Spanish steelo on here, flipping some Latin horns and rumba drums lovely. Again the spotlight is shone on Jay’s lyrical skills – this time he’s in straight up bragging mode, and his confidence on the mic is undeniable.
Dip number two comes with Timbaland’s ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’. Uninspiring, monotonous, and unchanging throughout, this track plods along at a pedestrian pace, and manages to drag Jay’s performance down to a below-satisfactory level. This kind of shit might fly for rap-by-numbers acts like Missy and Magoo, but on this album, by this artist, we expect more. MUCH more. This should never have made the cut.
9th Wonder’s work as part of Little Brother still amazes me. How can one man bite down so hard on Pete Rock’s production style and still manage to come off so lukewarm? I’ve never got the Little Brother hype at all, and I had some scary thoughts when I heard 9th was producing on this album. However he’s sat down with Fruity Loops and made an OK beat here – it has a harder edge that his LB work, while still not really doing anything. The repetitiveness is nowhere near the level of the Timbo track, but the lack of vitality and sparkle on here is hard to deny, and again Jay’s delivery over this beat suffers as a result. Another candidate for the infamous cutting room floor I’m afraid.
The opening bars of ‘Moment Of Clarity’ have Eminem’s signature production style (think: one drum kit, one set of strings) written all over them. Marshall’s ying/yang struggle as dope emcee / sucky producer is again highlighted on wax, as he goes out of his way to prove that ‘Renegade’ must have been some kind of fluke. A second listen will have you scratching your head as you try to work out why Jay-Z is spitting over the same beat that Nas used on ‘The Cross’. Em’s recycling skills and his ability to somehow get away with it when providing beats to today’s premier emcees ARE worth noting. This is as skippable as ‘The Cross’ too, with Em managing to bring the worst out of Jay-Z who descends to flogging the ghost of Biggie again here. Tired, uninspired trash from both emcee and producer I’m afraid. Maybe its because Marshall doesn’t CHARGE his favourite emcees for using his beats – I mean who would pay for this bobbins?
Rick Rubin. Def Jam founder. He rolled with Rush. He put the Beasties over rock guitars and made it work. Then he bounced to Geffen and Def American, and dabbled with a little Geto Boys before deciding that rock and metal was where it was at. So why has Jigga decided to bring his hiphop-deserting ass back into the fold, and why are there a set of shitty rock strings assaulting my ears as I listen to Jigga redo an average song, ’99 Problems’, that Ice T and Brother Marquis did on “Home Invasion”? And why is it so wack? Lets get back to the Hiphop. Please.
Thank Christ for Just Blaze. Once again the man pulls a Jigga album out of the never-listen-to-again pile with his production on the ‘My Name Is Hov Interlude’. Heavy with Meters-styled Hammond organs and drums, Jay’s whole mood seems more comfortable over this style of beat as he bounces his way through the three minutes.
Unfortunately we stumble again straight away though, as we encounter one of the worst DJ Quik beats I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. ‘Justify My Thug’ is simplistic to the extreme – where’s the layers of sound that Quik has made his trademark? This shit sounds like some Dre-reject shit. The Madonna interpolating chorus smacks of desperation – an attempt to try something, anything to get some kind of a memorable hook to rescue a weak cut. Sorry Shawn, it fails. Dismally.
Love em or hate em, but Just Blaze and Kanye West have changed the face of production in the last couple of years with their sped-up-soul-sample styles. Yes, they may have milked it for all it was worth, but as already detailed here, its these two who have done the best work on this album. With ‘Lucifer’ its West’s turn to get some more time in the spotlight – this is arguably the best beat on the album, built around a sample from Max Romeo’s ‘Chase The Devil’ beating the ‘Lucifer’ motto into your skull. Again, it seems that with these two cats’ production, Jay sounds most at home, eloquently and vividly describing how he got…
“…dreams of holding a nine milla to Bob’s killer
Asking him why as my eyes fill up
These days I can’t wake up with a dry pillow
Gone but not forgotten, homes I still feel ya
So, curse the day that birthed the bastard that caused your church mass
Reverse the crash, reverse the blast and reverse the car
Reverse the day – and there you are…”
The second Neptunes cut? Sickly sweet shit. There’s no nice way to put it. It tries to be a cross between the original ‘Excuse Me Miss’ and LL’s ‘Love You Better’, and instead sinks in a big pile of sugar. Too much sweet stuff is bad for the teeth – remember that. Then press skip.
Things come to a close with ‘My 1st Song’. Blessed with the obligatory Biggie sample, Jay’s flow is different here than at any other point on the album, a result of the beat itself, which comes off like some old Stax backing track for a one-hit-wonder singer to beg for his lady to come back. Aqua and Joe Weinberger came through with a very soulful closer for the album… it actually does give you the feeling that THIS is the last thing we might ever hear from Shawn Carter. You can almost see the credits rolling up the screen – its THAT movie-like.
And with that… he was gone.
So what does this mean? Is this a fitting legacy? Is this how Jay-Z is best remembered? Is this the best way to bring the curtain down on a glittering career? In a word, no. High points here are few and far between and are certainly outnumbered by a very poor choice of tracks that made the final cut. No matter what people (me included) might say about Primo, one of his beats on here would easily have shitted on the Quik, or the Timbaland track. The Em track is not even worth wasting any more energy on. Overall, its NOT a great way to go out, and I suspect that the lack of instant radio-friendly singles after ‘Change Clothes’ and ‘Encore’ might hurt sales, and perhaps might still spark Jay-Z into a comeback of sorts (a la Too Short.) This collection of tracks is not how I want to remember Jay-Z, nor I suspect how a majority of heads want to remember him. We’ll keep bumping “Reasonable Doubt” and think of what might have been.
Jay-Z – one of the greatest of all time? Yup. One of the biggest letdowns on the album front? For sure. A classic? Not on your life.