The Hip-Hop landscape was totally different back in 2003, and in that year, some of the rap's most revered albums were released. 50 Cent had released his later critically-acclaimed debut album, Get Rich Or Die Trying, Outkast had released their dual album, SpeakerBoxx/The Love Below, and the Roc-A-fella movement was in full swing with albums from Freeway and State Property. But things would change in the following year when Jay Z released The Black Album. Back when the Dash was still there (no pun intended), Jay Z had decided to call it quits, wanted to officially bring his illustrious and legendary career on the mic to a grand closing. At the time Hov helped remove 3X jerseys and usher in the “tailored” look of button-up shirts and jeans to hip-hop culture. As a high school sophomore, I distinctly remember thinking about two things at this time: first, where I could find a Carolina-blue button up to match my Tennessee Titans fitted hat, and how rap would change after the proposed end of Jay Z’s career. Fast forward 10 years, six albums and a family later, obviously Hov wasn’t there by a long shot, but at one point, the world had to prepare for the The Black Album being the final curtain call.
But looking back, you start to wonder, “What if?” What if Jay decided to call it quits, and The Black Album was his last hurrah. What if he really did just stick with his other business ventures? Think of the songs that wouldn’t have been if he bowed out of the game on November 14th, 2003. There’d be no “Roc Boys,” no “Holy Grail,” no “N*ggas In Paris,” none of that. No guest features, no collaborations, nothing. All that we would have are countless bottles of Armadale Vodka, Rocawear jeans and more business ventures after another. One could go as far to say that popular culture would be totally different if Jay Z decided to stop rapping on that day. This speaks further on the impact that the The Black Album had. It’s similar to having a glass of aged wine and thinking that you’ll never get this type of wine again. So we, the Hip-Hop community, did what we were supposed to do: enjoy the hell out of that drink.
With songs like “December 4th,” which feature his mother who he loves so dear speaking to her memories of his childhood, to songs like “Moment Of Clarity,” where he boasts of having that moment of realizing he’s given the game all that he could, “The Black Album” definitely had a sense of finality in its tone. And in retrospect, we look back on the project and can't help but think about the memorable times we had with the album. I’ve always thought “Lucifer” was the best song on the album, with Kanye West in his soul-sampling prime. Or how much a song like “Allure” was initially looked over, even by Jay himself, but the force that Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo put into that song made it an underrated favorite. And, you can’t forget the Rick Rubin-produced maelstrom that is “99 Problems,” as Hov teaches us more about the Law than the BAR Exam ever could have.
But it’s “Encore” where the album truly has its moment. Four minutes and eleven seconds of Jay Z figuratively taking his victory lap around the rap music arena, helmet off, looking at the cheering crowds and roses falling from the stands in honor of their hero. I honestly look at the song as one of Jay’s most intimate, as one of the game’s most intense competitors momentarily found solace in his own rest, and peace with his admittance that he didn’t have to battle anymore. It wasn’t bragging about his career, but more so stating the facts of his achievements. The Black Album sits as an album that places you in a time, in a moment. And essentially, that’s what music is all about. I won’t go as far to call this a classic in the traditional sense. But I will say it’s a classic based on it marking a point of a parallel universe of rap music. For when it’s all said and done, when you look at The Black Album, you have to wonder one thing: “what if this was the end?”
“Cory Townes is a Digital Content Producer born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa. His work has been featured in Vibe.com, The Grio, and other media publications. For more of his work, visit www.CoryTownes.com and follow him on Twitter at @CoryTownes.”