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.