Is Jay-Z really retiring? Listening to the “The Black Album,” it truly looks like this world-class hustler is leaving the rap game like he left the drug game: on top.
Jay-Z and drug dealing are like the needle and the groove. Starting with the 1996 classic “Reasonable Doubt,” Jay-Z spent seven albums building his whole style and persona on a cocaine connection. “You already know what I’m about,” he raps on the new track “What More Can I Say,” then proceeds to recite a list of felonies and related vices that would give C. Dolores Tucker an instant seizure.
“What More Can I Say” begins with a clip of Russell Crowe in the “Gladiator,” roaring “Are you not entertained?” to a bloodthirsty crowd. It’s an apt analogy for today’s criminal-minded rap music — men from the bottom acting out a deadly spectacle.
Drug dealers are always struggling with the right moment to retire. Jay-Z escaped that life with enough money to launch his rap career. Now he plans to escape the rap race without ending up like Michael Jordan in his final low-flying season. And “The Black Album,” full of complex, witty raps and soulful beats, is as good as anything Jay-Z’s ever done.
“December 4” is the same story Jay-Z’s told throughout his career — the story of his life — but he makes it fresh with his trademark verbal dexterity and by adding his mother’s voice to the chorus. It’s another potent installment in Jay-Z’s career-long justification of his old lifestyle, his explanation to the world of why he is who he is. On “The Black Album,” with song titles like “Justify My Thug” and demands to “feel my truth,” the man wants you to understand, literally, where he comes from.
The best rapper of all time?
Jay-Z also spends considerable time claiming to be the best rapper of all time (he may have a point, if you consider consistency) and talking about retirement (“They never really miss you ’til you dead or you gone/ So on that note I’m leaving after this song”). And he stops briefly to take aim at critics who’ve accused him of a variety of offenses, hitting dead-on each time.
To those who don’t like him quoting Biggie Smalls: “I’m not a biter, I’m a writer for myself and others/ I sell you Big’s verse, I’m only biggin’ up my brother/ Biggin’ up my borough, I’m big enough to do it/ I’m that thorough, plus I know my own flow is foolish.” And then he immediately quotes Biggie yet again.
To those who don’t like his subject matter: “I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars/ They criticize me for it but they all yell ‘Holla!’/ If skills sold truth be told I’d probably be/ lyrically Talib Kweli.” Whether or not you’ve heard of Kweli, Jay’s point is proven.
He’s still gangsta, of course, shooting and stabbing and quick to “leave your smarts on the side of your garment.” But Jay’s voice sounds deliberately weary at times, and at others simply amazed at himself, at how good he’s become and how much money he’s made. Like the pimp on “Threat” says, he’s sincere. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to believe this is his last album.
Then again, Jordan came back not once but twice, and Jay-Z has clearly stated his intention to become a music executive. “No I’m not through with it/ In fact I’m just previewing it/ This ain’t the show I’m just EQ-ing it,” he says. As “The Black Album” comes to an end with Jay-Z reminiscing over a bluesy track, you don’t know whether to tip your hat or start clapping for an encore.