[Image Courtesy of Def Jam]
ANNIVERSARY RECORDS: Jay Z’s The Black Album
by Chad Jewett
Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Mid-way through Pusha T’s “Numbers on the Board,” the single best hip hop track of 2013, there’s a break in the beat, filled by a sampled Jay Z. (I’m foregoing the hyphenated “Jay-Z” since Hova has recently stated his preference for the non-hyphenated “Jay Z”) In this pause, we get Jay, circa 1997, carping about rappers who can’t “rhyme no more, ‘bout crime no more.” If there were more degrees of separation between T and Jay (right now there’s only one – Kanye West, who is doing for Pusha what he did for Hova in the early 2000s), it’d be easy to read the sampling of that line as some sort of diss, soaked in irony. After all, My Name Is My Name is utterly about crime, illuminating the idea of illegality-as-survival from every angle. Once upon a time this is what Jay Z did particularly well, to the point where there are hip hop fans born in 1995 who cite Reasonable Doubt, which will be old enough to drive before they are, as an all-time favorite. But modern day Jay Z, auteur of the cross-promotional Magna Carta… Holy Grail (the all time greatest “take me seriously” title), and the seemingly designed-for-Target-end-cap Blueprint 3, can’t rhyme about crime no more. This is a good thing – I have serious issues with privileged white music critics who would take umbrage with Jay’s change in lyrical emphasis from street narratives. Frankly, critics like this are managing to be simultaneously racist, classist, and culturally-imperialist when demanding artists like Jay Z fit that limited version of “rapper.” But rapping about the stuff you own is also almost always boring, especially when your stories stop at the owning. I know for a fact that Jay Z could make more interesting points about Basquiat than simply stating that he has a Basquiat. A more incisive consideration of that image would be amazing, and its absence is all the more conspicuous because you and I both know Jay Z has it in him.
We know this because of 2003’s The Black Album. At the time it was supposed to be Jay Z’s retirement record (people didn’t believe him then either). Danger Mouse mashed the LP with The White Album, although I always thought cutting it with Abbey Road would make a lot more sense: both were generous “last hurrahs,” more about steely-eyed execution and comprehensive perfection than experimentation or expansion, even if they ended up having their fair share of both. Like Abbey Road, there isn’t a note out of place, because if Jay Z believed himself about his own retirement, he wanted to be unimpeachable. He wanted to leave a monolith behind. So even though the record itself is expertly written, sequenced, produced, and curated, what I find most essential about The Black Album is that Jay Z found a way of balancing his considerable wealth with the realities of American systemic racism. “Moment of Clarity” and “December 4th” both do a great job getting at this idea, and they’re not even the best example on this record. “99 Problems” is a stone-cold classic, partly owing to Rick Rubin’s “let’s-take-it-back-to-’85” beat, but to my mind, mainly due to Jay’s incredible second verse. Trust me, you remember it; everyone does. Detailing a moment of racial profiling in which Jay defies a police officer’s racist expectations by having a perfect knowledge of his own rights, the songs emergence at the exact moment when Jay was considered the most important and influential black artist in America belies the fact that Jay dates the confrontation at ’94, not 2002. Because implicit in the song is that it could happen now, just as easily, if not more so. Jay still occasionally rhymes about the cognitive dissonance between America’s indifference to it’s own struggling citizens and his ability to succeed beyond his wildest dreams, but never has he done it so perfectly, so thrillingly sharp.
Again, hip hop has always been at least partly about the fun of being fly, and it’s not Jay Z’s responsibility to always frame his wealth against its improbability – it’s just that he’s amazing at doing so. But “99 Problems” also oddly foreshadows other ways in which Jay would be out of touch in 2013. Indeed, the song’s central conceit, that Jay Z has more important things to rap about than emotional issues or women, makes zero sense in a contemporary musical world defined by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake, all of whom have found different ways to get at some serious introspection. Indeed, Take Care was both an early best-of-the-decade candidate, but also a bellwether in terms of what rap could do now. If hip hop only needs to be good at what it talks about to matter, then Drake, who, at his best, is very, very good at limning his own guilt, and anxiety, and difficult relationships with women, has made the case. Kanye West has similarly dealt with these issues, even if Yeezus is occasionally severely misguided in its calculations that defamatory language directed towards women somehow equals brash punk nihilism. In other words, in some ways “99 Problems” is the last perfect single before this era, in other ways it’s a bit of a dinosaur.
But for someone whose favorite Jay Z album is still In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (I know, I know, there goes my credibility), the best thing about The Black Album is the way it’s poised between the 90s and the late 2000s. There are moments that play uncannily well in 2013; the production marvels that are “Interlude,” “Encore,” and “Dirt off Your Shoulder;” the mix of bombast and roots-y origin-story on “December 4th” that brings to mind the dub-side darker versions of this idea on good kid, M.A.A.D city. I really hope “Change Clothes” is Russell Westbrook’s favorite Jay Z song, because man, is there another song that so purely evokes the thrill of looking good? Jay was ahead of his time in evoking that. But there are also moments that summoned the Bad Boy Records golden age of very expensive samples and gauche piano and strings instrumentals, especially on “Threat” which somehow ends up simultaneously sounding like something off of Wu Tang Forever (especially those odd spoken-word samples) and No Way Out. The Black Album is simply a pure crowd pleaser – if you’re out of ideas at a party, put it on; problem solved – but I think it’s also a model Jay could reuse. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “99 Problems” showcase what Jay Z can do when a beat pushes him (even “On To The Next One” off Blueprint 3 evinced this), when there’s a little competition. Because right now, there are better rappers, but there aren’t any better Jay Z’s. Hova is an original, still utterly unique, so it’s up to him to push himself. Maybe he can learn a bit from Pusha T (not that anyone wants Jay Z to ever admit to such a thing), who is actually only six years his junior: your skills shine brighter as the beats get weirder. It’s what I love about the rising generation of rappers like Doley Bernays, who is game to flow over any beat, no matter how abstract. More than trying to make enormously expensive albums, the way he did with Magna Carta, Jay, both a businessman, and a business man, needs to be a bit more precise in his investments. Imagine an album where Jay bought ten pieces of modern art, except they were productions by Kanye West, The Neptures, Hit-Boy, and Mike WiLL. This is pretty much exactly what he did with The Black Album, and I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love it. Jay Z has expressed great taste in abstract impressionism. I just really want to hear him rap over some.