Since his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z has not only released an average of 1.2 (solid) albums per year, but has also helped redefine what hip-hop albums sound like, notably doing so in an era that’s afraid of breaking new ground and setting new trends in creativity. While his outer shell seems like merely a diamond-encrusted surface, over the course of his ten albums, Jay-Z has proven there is much more happening on the inside, more-so than the typical one-dimensional jiggy rapper. What he says on “Public Service Announcement” is true: “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex”. And not only is his character intriguing, but he’s done it with a whole lot of style and lyrical finesse, with clever word-play and poetic brilliance that most fans don’t even notice, and finicky naysayers disregard. “If skills sold, truth be told / I’d probably be, lyrically Talib Kweli / Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / but after I sold 5 mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since”. Not a strong moral foundation here, but Jigga is brutally honest about the path he’s taken and why he’s taken it. With The Black Album, Jay-Z claims he’s about to hang up his mic for good; but is this really it for him? Retiring like “Jordan in his prime”, or will he return simply two years later ala fellow rap retirees Master P and Too Short?
The method to Jay-Z’s madness is simply this ? he wants to be crowned the greatest rapper alive, and to do so, he must depart the game, (like 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., but still breathing) because at this point people still pose the question, “who’s the best, Eminem, Jigga, or Nas?”, and of course if he is gone, fools will get nostalgic, etc, etc and naturally give the crown to him. So best believe the battle with Nas has left Jay-Z shaken and stirred like an Armadale martini, and it comes out in his lyrics. Putting the beef behind him, it’s still evident that Jay-Z’s ego has been bruised in the aftermath, because the point of him being the best emcee is driven home on virtually every track on this album, almost to the point of being self-defeating like LL Cool J crowning himself the “G.O.A.T.”. Don’t get it twisted, by no means is Jay-Z slipping lyrically on this LP, however, he has become quite pre-occupied with obtaining a permanent crown, as evidenced on the many lines all over the album, such as “I’m supposed to be number one on everybody’s list, let’s see what happens when I no longer exist…..”, right before dropping the mic at the end of “What More Can I Say”.
As the album opens, Jay-Z pens a beautiful narrative on “December 4th”, a triumphant Just Blaze banger that breathes the winter air of the Marcy projects, recounting the earliest of Jay-Z’s memories and how his life changed the day his parents split up. Followed shortly later with the Kanye West produced “Encore”, both tracks boldly insert some soul and feeling back into hip-hop, bringing back that classic vibe that was so prevalent in the 90′s, yet with an updated sound. Jiggaman goes back even further with the incredible, Rick Rubin produced “99 Problems”, which is sure to be the Mark Ronson / DJ Z-Trip / tastemaker deejay club banger of the season, thanks to its License To Ill-esque sound, once again reinforcing that this album wants to be deemed classic.
However, the shift of the album has changed from the get-go, preventing it from doing so. Originally set to be Jay-Z’s Illmatic of sorts (“12 tracks, 12 producers”), the end outcome does not include tracks produced by Dr. Dre or DJ Premier as originally slated, but instead randomly hops around, still awarding in house producers Just and Kanye two tracks each (of which there isn’t anything wrong with, but it’s a shame the concept was killed). Meanwhile, many of the album’s other beats fail to measure up to Jigga’s always on point rhymes. Jay-Z has seen better days with Timbaland than on “Dirt Of Your Shoulders” (see: “Big Pimpin’” or “Hey Papi”), and better days with The Neptunes than on “Change Clothes” (see: “I Just Wanna Love You” or “Frontin’). Meanwhile Eminem’s beat for “Moment of Clarity” starts a bad chain of redundancy for the Shady producer, and 9th Wonder’s surprisingly dark “Threat” somehow doesn’t match up the standard set on God’s Stepson (but still bangs). And DJ Quik’s beat for “Justify My Thug” was moving, despite the corny-ass hook lifted from Madonna (who lifted Public Enemy). All gripes aside, none of these tracks are bad, they are all pretty good in fact, however we’ve seen better material from all of the parties involved, and considering this is Jay-Z’s last album, the bar could have been raised a bit higher. But at the end of the day, it was Jay-Z’s album, and Jay picked the beats, so who can fault the producers?
Regardless, Jay-Z has still constructed yet another solid album with his supposed outro, and it is safe to say that Jay is, maybe not the best, but definitely the most consistent rapper ever. He doesn’t fail on delivering entertaining lyrics and overall a strong album to close the year (and his career) out, but he’s still got two albums in his back catalog better than this one. Peace out Jiggaman, you definitely made your mark ? take a vacation for once. And in two years, we’ll be welcoming you back with open arms.
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