MTV's "MC Battle II: The Takeover in Time Square" MTV's "MC Battle II: The Takeover in Time Square"
Rapper Jay Z performs for MTV's 'MC Battle II: The Takeover in Time Square' at MTV's Time Square Studios November 22, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

Ranking The Beats: JAY-Z's ‘The Black Album’

In honor of the album's 15th anniversary, VIBE broke down JAY-Z's The Black Album and ranked its beats, from worst-to-first, to determine which track reigns supreme.

In 2003, JAY-Z announced his plans to put down the mic and focus on being an entrepreneur and executive after the release of his eighth studio album. The news sent the hip-hop community into a frenzy. Seven solo albums deep into his career, he had already reached the highest heights a rap star could shoot for. And like a certain Chicago Bulls legend, he concluded that he needed to step away while at the top of his game and take on other challenges and new opportunities. However, not before delivering one final album and fulfilling his contractual obligations. The Black Album would be the most high-profile swan song from a rap artist to that point in time and look to cap off his career on a triumphant note.

Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, The Black Album sold nearly a half-million units in its first week and eventually certified triple platinum, making it his most commercially successful release of the decade. While JAY-Z's lyrical performance on The Black Album is phenomenal, the album is as much of a classic due in part to its production. Boasting a lineup of producers including Just Blaze, Kanye West, Timbaland, The Neptunes, 9th Wonder, Rick Rubin, Eminem and others, The Black Album was an epic affair and Hov's most sonically-rich long player to date.

While JAY-Z would eventually come out of retirement in 2006 with his Kingdom Come album, The Black Album will always be looked at as the rapper's “retirement” album, the one that further branded him as an icon and stands as one of the more revered bodies of work in his career. With 15 years having passed since the album first hit shelves, VIBE decided to pay homage to this classic by ranking the beats on The Black Album, from the most pedestrian to the most impressive. Where does your favorite track rank?


13. “Justify My Thug” (DJ Quik)

DJ Quik helms the boards on "Justify My Thug," which finds Hov revamping Madonna's 1990 hit, “Justify My Love.” Doing work with a sample of Funkadelic's 1980 cut, "The Witch," Quik delivers a jittery soundbed that is sonically ambitious, but ranks on the lower spectrum of tracks from the album.

12. “Moment of Clarity” (Eminem)

Eminem gifts JAY-Z with a slice of boom-bap with "Moment of Clarity," a terse selection from The Black Album, produced by the Shady one himself. Built around drums, violins and searing synths, "Moment of Clarity" is far from pedestrian, but ultimately falls on the back-end when judged against other tracks from the album.

11. “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” (Timbaland)

Timbaland supplies JAY-Z with a slapper in the form of "Dirt Off Your Shoulders," an up-tempo soundscape that features one of the rapper's more cocksure performances on The Black Album. Famously making Hov lose his marbles in the 2003 documentary, Fade to Black, the organized distortion of "Dirt Off Your Shoulders" would continue JAY-Z and Timbo's streak of club bangers.

10. “Change Clothes” (The Neptunes)

Enlisting The Neptunes to produce "Change Clothes," the album’s lead-single, JAY-Z's decision to go with his longtime collaborators yielded impressive returns. Driven by drums, cowbells, and Wurlitzer keys, the composition is of one of the album’s few that is devoid of a sample, giving it a change in pace. One of the rare radio-friendly compositions on The Black Album, "Change Clothes" won fans over with its leisurely vibe and superb instrumentation, on the part of Pharrell and Chad.

9. “My 1st Song” (Aqua, Joe "3H" Weinberger)

Producers Aqua and Joe "3H" Weinberger join forces to create the backing track for "My 1st Song," the selection that closes out The Black Album. Driven by a sample of "Tu Y Tu Mirar, Yo Y Mi Cancion" by Chilean pop band the Los Angeles Negros, the guitar-laden track also incorporates percussion into the mix, resulting in the perfect backdrop to ride off into the sunset to.

8. “Threat” (9th Wonder)

After making his name as the production arm of North Carolina rap trio Little Brother, 9th Wonder got an assist from Young Guru to make his leap to the majors with "Threat," his contribution to The Black Album. Powered by drums and piano keys pilfered from R. Kelly's 2000 single, "A Woman's Threat," 9th Wonder's production on the song has a menacing bounce to it and coaxes a flawless, venomous performance out of The God Emcee.

7. “What More Can I Say” (The Buchanans)

On "What More Can I Say," production duo The Buchanans draw listeners in with a sample from the 2000 flick, Gladiator, before unleashing one of the more epic instrumentals on The Black Album. With a sample of "Something for Nothing" by MFSB serving as the song's foundation, the backing track for "What More Can I Say" takes a page out of the book of "Put Your Hands Up," The Notorious B.I.G.'s 1997 collaboration with Tracy Lee, in yet another nod to the Bed Stuy legend.

6. “Encore” (Kanye West)

Kanye West serves up a heater with the instrumental for "Encore," a song on The Black Album that doubles as one of its biggest anthems. Reworking horns from reggae singer John Holt's 1976 cut, "I Will," Kanye West completes the cipher with tumbling kicks and snares, resulting in a backdrop that helped bring the “stadium status” factor into crafting a classic rap song.

5. “December 4th” (Just Blaze)

The Black Album opens up on a celebratory note with "December 4th," which features JAY-Z painting a vivid picture of his adolescence. Produced by Just Blaze and built around a sped-up sample of the Chi-Lites' 1974 release, "That's How Long," "December 4th" is as regal as anything Hov has ever rapped over and one of the better beats on the album.

4. “Lucifer” (Kanye West)

Of the two tracks Kanye West contributed to The Black Album, "Lucifer" is the one many beat-junkies will argue ranks as one of the best in the producer's catalog. Utilizing a vocal sample from reggae great Max Romeo's 1976 cut, "Chase the Devil," Kanye bolsters JAY-Z’s religiously-themed rhymes with booming drums, groovy guitar licks and piano keys, resulting in one of the album's more lively compositions. Hov's unforgettable reaction to the final product in the Fade To Black documentary says it all.


3. “Allure” (The Neptunes)

Wistful piano keys greet listeners on "Allure," one of the more revered songs not only on The Black Album, but JAY-Z's entire catalog. The Neptunes, who also use their signature drum loop and explosive sound effects, crafted a composition that draws out an emotional performance from Hov about his longing to return to the block.

2. “99 Problems” (Rick Rubin)

The Black Album's most intense soundscape comes courtesy of Rick Rubin, who helms the boards on "99 Problems," which bridges the gap between the worlds of rap and rock-and-roll. Boasting a sample of Billy Squier's classic record, "The Big Beat," Rick Rubin pairs those drums with rollicking guitar licks and cowbells—a perfectly raucous soundbed for Jay to narrate a close call with cops who pulled him over "for doing 55 in a 54."

1. “P.S.A.” (Just Blaze)

Of all of the beats on The Black Album, the one that stands as superior to the rest is "Public Service Announcement," which also doubles as the best song on the album. Produced by Just Blaze, the boardsman utilizes Wurlitzer and piano keys lifted from "Seed of Love" by ‘60s garage-rock band Little Boy Blues. Pairing that sample with revamped kicks and snares, as well as dialogue from Dick Gregory's "Moral Gap," Just Blaze turns in a soundscape that packs enough punch to cause pandemonium and euphoria at the drop of the beat.

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Derrel Todd

Music Sermon: Forget The King of R&B, Raphael Saadiq Is The Son Of Soul

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

This week, Cash Money artist Jacquees set off an internet firestorm when he proclaimed himself to be the “King” of R&B “for (his) generation.” The comment led artists, executives, music fans and #BlackTwitter in general to debate: who is the King of R&B? (Spoiler alert - it’s not Jacquees.)

While a consensus was never reached, the heated discussion illustrated how much the definitions and ideas of R&B and R&B stars varies between age groups. Ironically, one name that seldom appeared in the convo belongs to one of the most consistent and prolific presences in soul and R&B music for the last 30 years: Raphael Saadiq.

Saadiq has become like a stealth superhero of soul for the last several years of his career, moving to the background as more writer/composer/musician, so the impulse for many might be to label him as an “old school” artist. But that’d be a misnomer, as he’s still had his hand in some of the most influential music for the current generation. Perhaps he transcends a simple R&B conversation as a self-identified Son of Soul (the difference between R&B and Soul is a topic for another day), but however you want to categorize him, he is not widely-enough acknowledged for how he’s kept us jamming, constantly, for three decades.

Let’s explore the iterations through which “Ray Ray” has blessed us over the years.


During the birth and rise of New Jack Swing and then the subsequent evolution to Hip-Hop Soul, Tony! Toni! Toné! was one of the last of a dying R&B breed: the band. They – and a few years later Mint Condition - were standouts as live musicians in an R&B landscape turning to sample-based production. This set both groups apart, establishing them early on as serious soul acts, and making them forerunners of the neo soul sound to come in the late ‘90s.

Like almost every black musician and/or producer of note in his peer group, Saadiq developed and honed his musical chops in the church. Exposure to Motown and Stax by his blues singer father led him to the bass and served as inspiration for his future style. But he, brother Dwayne and cousin Timothy Christian received their formal Tony! Toni! Toné! training on the road: Raphael and Christian toured as part of Sheila E’s band on Prince’s Parade Tour and Dwayne with gospel great Tramaine Hawkins.

Having been properly trained, educated and tested in blues, soul, gospel, and funk, the three formed Tony! Toni! Toné!. Their first album was a modest success, achieving gold status from the RIAA, but wasn’t a standout. The trio started taking the reins on writing and production on their sophomore effort, and the Tonys as we now know them showed up. They announced both their musical background and intentions with their album titles: The Revival, Sons of Soul, House of Music. They were not there for catchy, formulaic R&B. They developed a signature blues, soul, gospel and funk hybrid, rolled up in modern R&B and hip-hop fusion.

The Revival is arguably a new jack swing album – “Feels Good” is a must-have on any new jack playlist – but they were taking the existing marriage of R&B and hip-hop and adding an even deeper soul element, reaching back to ‘70s sonic roots. It was the sonic equivalent of taking new jack swing chicken and shaking it in a paper bag of old-school musically-seasoned flour.

The group still had the kind of jammin’ uptempos found on their debut, Who?, but started to establish themselves as producers of some of the greatest R&B ballads of the ‘90s.

When you think of the Tonys’ music, aside from “Feels Good,” the first song that comes to mind is probably a slow jam. Most acts are fortunate to get one true signature song in their career. Tony! Toni! Toné! has several, and they’re timeless. Put them on today and see if you don’t hit a body roll.

They also established themselves as formidable soundtrack players (as any 90s act worth their salt did. Remember soundtracks, by the way?). They had cuts on the House Party II and Boyz in the Hood albums.

By Sons of Soul they’d found their pocket, and they pushed the sonic limits of contemporary R&B to the extent that some outlets classified the album as jazz, it was such an outlier. Saadiq recognized that they were doing something important for genre. Something that was connecting old style and new. In an interview about the album in 1994, he expressed what he saw as the group’s role in music. "We've been very blessed to be able to be a group that writes our own songs and people have accepted us from both sides, hip-hop and the R&B…I feel very fortunate to be able to do that here in 1993-94, because like you know, it was starting to be a dying thing that was happening. But I guess we were like the bridge between hip-hop and soul and R&B.”

Going back to the aforementioned King of R&B discussion, Diddy chimed in the conversation (he knows a little something about the topic) to run down some criterion to even be considered. His list included vulnerability and adoration in the lyrics and subject matter, the ability to sing a woman’s “draws” off, and the pen game to write hits. Check, check and check. Sons of Soul deservedly landed at or near the top of a gang of 1994 year-end lists and the Tonys continued to raise the bar for the ballad game. Real talk, the last four and a half minutes of the “Anniversary” album cut are better than some entire R&B albums.

With House of Music, the group sought to even more fully showcase all their influences and inspirations: the Al Green-esque “Thinking of You;” the Stylistics-inspired “Holy Smokes & Gee Wiz;” the Bay Area connect with DJ Quik for some G-Funk with “Let’s Get Down;” the straight-up church moment of the “Lovin’ You” reprise closing out the album, with Christian putting all that good anointing on the Hammond B3 organ. This was our clearest glimpse what Saadiq had in store for the future.


When Tony! Toni! Toné! broke up and Saadiq put together supergroup Lucy Pearl, we realized he was on some other sh*t. First, the very idea to bring En Vogue’s Dawn Lewis, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Saadiq together was genius. Then, oh…what’s this sound? Tony! Toni! Toné! with a little somethin’ extra on it? Saadiq revealed his ability to reinvent himself, stylistically and sonically, and play in different music spaces. Successfully. Hits, check.


After Lucy Pearl, Saadiq embarked on his first solo projects. We’ll get to those, but the more remarkable part of this era was his expansive work as a writer, producer and session musician for others. As mentioned earlier, Tony! Toni! Tone! was an inspiration for neo soul (a term Saadiq loathes), which pulled from ‘60s and ‘70s influences, paired with the return to live instrumentation, mixed with hip-hop swag. Saadiq was a sometime member of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla’s Ummah production collective, but had also been working on outside projects since the Tonys were active. Through either the Ummah or alone, Ray was behind hits you may have attributed to someone else.

-D’Angelo, "Lady:" Saadiq co-wrote, co-arranged and co-produced the still-perfect ode to #WCEs (Women Crush Everydays) with D’Angelo.

-Bilal, "Soul Sista:" Soul and R&B great Mtume on the pen, Saadiq on production.

-Angie Stone, "Brotha:" OK, who’s gonna create the 2018 “Unproblematic” edit of the “Brotha” video?

-Total, "Kissing You:" No, this wasn’t Stevie J. Now, imagine this as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song. You can absolutely hear it, right?

-Erykah Badu and Common, "Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop):" Saadiq again proving he’s a master of the perfect fusion of hip-hop and an old soul groove.

-D’Angelo, "Untitled (How Does It Feel):" Saadiq has admitted he later realized he was channeling Jay Dee’s style throughout the D’Angelo session.


As a solo artist, Saadiq has accomplished what few can: continuously evolving his sound and aesthetic while yet managing to still always sound like himself. The retro-influence has been a constant in his work, but that influence ranges between decades and musical eras. He’d given us a taste of solo Ray through “Ask of You” from the Higher Learning soundtrack, but that could easily pass as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song.

With Instant Vintage (again letting you know what he came to do with the title), Saadiq expanded on his existing signature sound of soul, funk, gospel and R&B; a sound he coined “Gospaldelic.”

With Ray Ray, he delivered a modern blaxploitation soundtrack. But then, in 2008, he went all the way back to Motown and the purest soul sound for The Way I See It. Saadiq was committed to an authentic return to ‘60s soul for the entire process. He eschewed slick, modern production techniques for old-school practices, including vintage equipment, all live instrumentation and single-take recordings. He donned slim-cut suits and classic frames for his look, and delivered a retro soul package via the 45 inch LP box set. But it still sounded incredibly fresh and modern, and that is his gift.

His last solo album, 2011’s Stone Rolling, was a progression of The Way I See It, staying in the same retro soul pocket, bringing some funk and rock’n’roll back into.

Or did he?


The thing about Saadiq is that he doesn’t just look a perpetual 30 years old (he’s 52. It don’t crack.). Unlike a lot of “old heads,” he keeps his ear current, as well. Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Anderson Paak, and BJ the Chicago Kid are his musical nephews. He praises them and their music often in interviews, heralding them as the current bridge-builders between eras and urban genres. Labelmate Leon Bridges adapted his The Way I See It and Stone Rolling formulas - from the sound to the ‘60s-style dress and imaging - for his own, and had Saadiq’s enthusiastic blessing. He listens to SZA, PJ Morton and Daniel Caesar. And he still has his finger on the pulse of current urban musical movements.

Saadiq was an executive producer on Solange Knowles’ 2016 A Seat at the Table, garnering a Grammy for the anthemic “Cranes in the Sky.”

He’s also helped to bring the full authenticity of the West Coast to Insecure for the past three seasons, serving as the show’s composer.

And he hasn’t abandoned his peers and contemporaries, garnering a “Best Song” Oscar nomination last year with Mary J. Blige for Mudbound’s “Mighty River,” and just recently executive producing John Legend’s first Christmas album, A Legendary Christmas. Only time will tell what he brings on the forthcoming solo album he told VIBE about, titled Jimmy Lee.

Whether his name is included in King of R&B conversations or not, Saadiq has been booked and busy in every area of black music since before 1988, keeping both aunties and nieces grooving, with no signs of slowing or stopping.

RELATED: Raphael Saadiq Talks New Music, 'Insecure,' And Why Tony! Toni! Toné! Won't Reunite

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Nick Rice

25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018

The female voice in hip-hop has always been present whether we've noticed it or not. The late Sylvia Robinson birthed the hip-hop music industry with the formation of Sugar Hill Records (and fostering "Rapper's Delight"), Roxanne Shante's 55 lyrical responses to fellow rappers were the first diss tracks and Missy Elliott's bold and striking music and visuals inspired men and women in the game to step outside of their comfort zones.

These pillars and many more have allowed the next generation of emcees to be unapologetically brash, truthful and confident in their music. Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj's Queen might've been the most mainstream albums by womxn in rap this year, but there was a long list of creatives who brought the noise like Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Noname and Bbymutha. Blame laziness or the heavy onslaught of music hitting streaming sites this year, but many of the artists on this list have hibernated under the radar for far too long.

VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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VIBE / Nick Rice

10 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists Of 2018

We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

While fans received a large dose of music from our favorite artists and celebrated some of the most iconic album anniversaries, there are a few names that stood out as the culture pushers, sh*t starters, and all-around most significant artists of the year.

For your enjoyment, VIBE compiled a list of the top 10 most important hip-hop artists of 2018 based on a series of qualifications: 1) public actions - good, bad, and ugly; 2) music releases; 3) philanthropic/humanitarian work; and 4) trending moments.

Be clear: This list isn’t about the most influential, the most talented, who had the best music or tours. While we are commemorating artists for the work they’ve contributed to this year’s music cycle, we’re looking beyond that and evaluating how these particular artists have shaped conversations and pushed hip-hop culture forward.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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