RapReview Of The Week

[The Black Album] Jay-Z :: The Black Album
Label: Roc-A-Fella Records

Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon

You can argue over whether or not he is the best MC - from Brooklyn, from New York, from the East coast, whatever. You can argue over whether or not he is the most influential MC. You can argue over whether or not he is the most prolific artist in hip-hop. From 1996-2003 though, Shawn Carter has released 9 full length albums. You can't argue with numbers, and Shawn 'Jay-Z' Carter has those in spades. Each of those albums has gone gold, platinum, and usually multi-platinum. Whether you call him Young Hov', S. Dot, Jigga, Jay-Hova, or whatever, the only thing Jay-Z has to call himself is "The Blueprint," the rapper other rappers wish they could be. It's a phenomenon he describes well with the words "fucks, too lazy to make up shit they crazy, they don't, paint pictures, they just, trace me" on the song "What More Can I Say":

"Excludin nobody, look what I embody
The soul of a hustler, I really ran the street
A CEO's mind, that marketin plan was me
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 I +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!"

Shawn Carter shows himself to both be driven to success and stung by it's effects on "The Black Album." The album swings back and forth from one side to the other like a pendulum, with each slice carving out another song with a differing perspective. The catchy Neptunes produced "Change Clothes" embraces his entertainer's side, a song whose lyrics keep matters light and allow the beat to move your feet:

"Then run and tell them ducks you heard Hovi new shit
He and the boy Phar-real make beautiful music
He is to the East coast what Snoop is
To the West, what 'Face is to Houston
Young Hov' in the house is so necessary
No bra with that blouse, that's so necessary
No panties and jeans, that's so necessary
Now why you frontin on me, is that necessary?"

At other times, Shawn is righteously defiant. "99 Problems" is a concept as old as Ice-T and as recent as Trick Daddy, but the Rick Rubin produced throwback track grounds Jigga in a guitar-rock anthem circa LL Cool J's "Radio" days. The setting lets S. Dot take shot at anyone who questions his hip-hop credentials, be they inside or outside of it's mainstream:

"I got the Rap Patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that wanna make sure my casket's closed
Rap critics that say he's 'Money, Cash, Hoes'
I'm from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those?
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You'd celebrate the minute you was havin dough
I'm like fuck critics, you can kiss my whole asshole
If you don't like my lyrics, you can press fast forward
Got beef with radio if I don't play they show
they don't play my hits - well I don't give a shit, SO!
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give 'em more cash for ads, fuckers!
I don't know what you take me as
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has"

Even among his fans though, there seems to be no end to debate about just what it is that makes Jay-Z so successful. Is it the way he crafts lyrical narratives that haunt the soul, with songs like "You Must Love Me" and "Soon You'll Understand"? Is it the catchy pop songs that carry him to mainstream crossover success, like "Hard Knock Life" and "H.O.V.A."? Is it his ability to trend ahead of the curve for style and fashion, from the "Filth Mart jeans" of "I Just Wanna Love U" to the "Manolo Blahnik timbs" of "Bonnie & Clyde"? Or maybe it's his uncanny knack for picking the right people to work with - The Neptunes on the former, and Beyonce Knowles on the latter. Even Jay himself is in search of answer on the introspective track "Moment of Clarity":

"Music business hate me cause the industry ain't make me
Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be makin
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it yet they all yell 'HOLLA!'
If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be
lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mill' - I ain't been rhymin like Common since
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustlin since, your inception
Fuck perception go with what makes sense
Since I know what I'm up against
We as rappers must decide what's most impor-tant
And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win/win
So next time you see the homey and his rims spin
Just know my mind is workin just like them...
... rims, that is"

If Shawn stays up at night worrying about whether or not he could be a better lyricist though, he needs not. Like his career, "The Black Album" strives hard to cover all the bases while not cashing in his street cred or his Marcy Projects upbringing. Jay-Z may in fact be unintentionally reclaiming rap back from pop. On the DJ Quik produced "Justify My Thug" he slyly reinterprets a Madonna song which many may remember blatantly ripped off Public Enemy's beat to "Security of the 1st World." You could concentrate on the karmic irony, or you could just groove to the beat and dig into Jigga's well thought out rhymes:

"I will never tell even if it means sittin in a cell
I ain't never ran, never will
I ain't never been smacked; a nigga better keep his hands
to himself or get clapped for what's under that man's belt
I never asked for nothin I don't demand of myself
Honesty, loyalty, friends and then wealth
Death before dishonor and I tell you what else
I tighten my belt 'fore I beg for help
Foolish pride is what held me together through the years
I wasn't felt which is why I ain't never played myself
I just play the hand I'm dealt, I can't say I've never knelt
before God and asked for better cards at times to no avail
But I never sat back feelin sorry for myself
If you don't give me heaven I'll raise hell
'Til it's heaven"

At just over 55 minutes, "The Black Album" is not the longest release in Shawn Carter's career, but is not unduly short. In fact, other than the first 80 seconds introducing the disc, it may be the most pure uncut Jay-Z the public has seen condensed in one space at one time since the 20th century - or possibly ever. Jay-Z goes for delf on this one, not asking for nor needing the help of his Roc fam. From the Just Blaze produced autobiography "December 4th" to HHH Artists closer "My 1st Song," all the raps are Shawn's. Like the title and the cover of the album, it's a statement for the rap icon that he's giving the public a pure undiluted version of himself.

Whether this release will settle the debate about his rank in hip-hop or just fuel the discussion further is ultimately not as important as whether or not this is a good album. It's not a good album - it's a GREAT album. Shawn Carter has had the tools he needs for a long time - great breath control, clever wordplay, a commanding presence vocally and on stage, and an uncanny knack for giving people what they want to hear. "The Black Album" is all of those things, and even though he tells critics to "kiss his whole asshole" this one for one would rather come to praise him than to bury him. Greatest of all time? Maybe, maybe not. If he retired now though, he'd easily be top five or better. Jay-Z fans but felt "The Blueprint 2" was overly long and uneven, this album is your answer. Hip-Hop fans in general, if you were knocking Jigga's hustle cause of his marketing muscle, here's your chance to redeem yourself. He won't apologize for being who he is, but as long as he keeps making great raps, he doesn't have to.

Music Vibes: 9 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10

Originally posted: November 18, 2003
source: www.RapReviews.com

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