10 Years Later: Analyzing Every Song On Jay Z's 'Black Album'
November 14, 2013 - 5:12 pm
Jay Z's landmark project, The Black Album, celebrates its 10th anniversary today (Nov. 14). Released under the impression that Hov was calling it quits as an MC, the masterful LP could've been the perfect bookend to an exemplary hip-hop career. Yet listening to Jay's pseudo swan song a decade later shows some vast differences—and a few similarities—between 33- and 43-year-old Shawn Carter (the latter establishing #newrules with his Magna Carta ... Holy Grail LP this summer). As The Black Album hits double digits, VIBE's Bonsu Thompson looks back at every song on the project.
Click through the photos to begin.
“DEC 4”The Black Album’s first song––Jay’s Just Blaze-scored autobio––touched on a constant in the Shawn Carter narrative: the absence of his father. There isn’t a composition in the latter half of Jay-Z’s catalogue that doesn’t note the parental crater which devastated before affording misdirection––being the unsupervised youngest in a single-parent housing project home, young Young would duck poverty and survive the concrete jungle that his window faced by becoming an animal (specie: dope dealer). According to the God MC, he never pursued the life of a street pharmacist––drugs found, enticed, then hooked him. With twisted irony, the process of selling death and despair would introduce Jay to unhealthy emotional states (i.e. distrust, paranoia, emotional unavailability). Although, hiss estranged father passed some months before The Black Album’s release, it’s on this track where he first admits to finding peace with his absentee Pops (“Moment of Clarity” follows).
10 Years later…
Jay hasn’t healed from growing up without his father and is beginning to realize that he may never. On “Jay-Z Blue,” off his latest album Magna Carter Holy Grail, he reminds us once more that his fall into the under world was encouraged by a father-less household (“Only hugged the block cause I thought my Daddy didn’t love me!”–“Jay-Z Blue”). But while the paranoia has remained from “Regrets” to “Dec 4” on, its effect has shifted. On the aforementioned MCHG track, the MC who once boasted of having “cashmere chromosomes” never sounded so nervous. He’s a father and husband whose realizing he possesses many of his Dad’s characteristics. His biggest fear now is that he actually becomes his father; that he brings the same hurt or, worse, absence to his family. Shawn Corey’s Dad never taught him how to be a father or how to treat a mother, so he’s learning on the fly. The stakes are at their highest for the Brooklyn gambler. More than ever before, he must own his classic slogan: I will not lose.
“WHAT MORE CAN I SAY”
Interestingly, this track proceeds where “Dec 4” concludes, then ciphers to Xerox the track’s final sentiment. After refreshing his bio on the preceding track, Jay laments feeling unappreciated by rap fans––he felt due to his influence on pop culture, superbly spit non-fiction and a treasure of platinum albums he should be #1 on everybody’s Top 5 MC list. He then snidely wonders aloud what shape a Jay-Z-less rap game will find itself in, even suggesting that could be when he’ll receive his just due. All greats are loved most when they’re gone.
Prior to his exasperated mic-drop, Jay affirms that he’s a direct descendant of the Notorious B.I.G. thus the undisputed King of New York and only one fit to pay homage to his late best friend (Producers The Buchananans used the same MFSB sample that Ike Lee snatched for Tracey Lee and Biggie’s “Keep Your Hands High,” while Jay pinched a couple of Big’s classic bars from said track).
10 Years Later…
Fortunately the world never had to discover Hip-Hop without Jay-Z. Instead, Hip-Hop benefited from Hov’s retirement breach. It grew voluminously thanks in large to the Jigga man returning to not solely rap, but decorate his hat with a flock of President and CEO titles which ranged from Def Jam to his very own Roc Nation to NBA ownership. On this track, he warned the 1% that he was on their ass. Today his net worth is half of a billion dollars and he and wife Beyonce makeup the richest celebrity couple on planet Earth. While a decade ago, Jay wasn’t sure if he was the rap masses number one, today he’s proof positive that he’s Forbes’ numero uno rapper.
Kanye navigates Jay’s supposed victory lap in regal fashion. The horn section is a royal glove-fit for a Hova adieu. With his status at its apex, Hov felt there was no better time for a grand closing. He came, saw and conquered. Never was he invited into the rap game. He used the same sensibilities obtained hustling in Trenton, New Jersey to force the music industry’s hand. Through perseverance he’s realized the “American Dream” more than any other master of ceremony. Thus taking shorts wasn’t an option. In fact, a guest feature from him would cost somewhere between the 1.2 and 2.4 million dollars range; a pretty penny, but a price tag that could bring an artist exposure on BET and the now defunct TRL. But at this time, domestic rap wasn’t at the forefront of Jay’s thought. He had his sights on taking over the globe.
10 Years later…
Instead of boosting the careers of artists on other labels, Jay focused on birthing superstars on his rosters. As the President of Def Jam Records, he was at the helm of historic signings like Rihanna, Young Jeezy and Rick Ross. Once he landed the unprecedented deal with live performance juggernaut Live Nation for his own boutique label and management company, he introduced the game to next generation talent like J. Cole while overseeing the careers of fresh winners like Wale and M.I.A.
Hov was very serious about FUTW. The first Hip-Hop act to perform at the Glastonbury Festival, headlined a number of British festivals while touring for Blueprint 3. Then in 2012, he decided to produce his own music festival, “Made In America,” inviting the world’s best music acts. Funny thing is on this track Jay’s proud to have gone from Marcy Projects to performing in Madison Square Garden. Little did he know, nine years later he’d be performing in a Brooklyn stadium, which he partially owned.
You can catch Shawn between the crosshairs of new love and old habits. Despite being a stone’s throw away from an engagement with his beautiful Bey, the 33-year-old designed his first single to sell that he’s still got it; that he very much understands the importance of a woman’s bra and heel of choice; that he’s very familiar with fashion of the highest quality and price (ie. Vera Wang). In fact, he insisted that he was as fresh to death as he’s ever been. His fashion lines of choice then were Ralph Lauren (Purple Label) and Billionaires Boys Club (BBC). So there was zero reason that any woman should mistake him for anyone unsophisticated or unofficial. Hov was so confident that he’d sweat a lucky lady’s weave out into an afro-puff–––one which resembled those former Death Row rapper Lady of Rage wore––that he invited her to bring a friend along so the three could make…a Roc-A-Fella diamond.
10 Years later…
Sir Carter has been married for five years to a wife he refers to on “Part II (On The Run)” as “perfect.” We all know his past isn’t pretty, but he reminds us that his lady is (we knew that too). Yet and still, when Hov’s out, them are hoes out with their weaves in. Why? Assumptions are because Jay’s not as fresh as he was ten years ago; he’s impressively fresher in his forties. More experimental with his fashion, the Rocawear owner loves rocking “weird clothes” as much as he does white tuxes––whether on set with Justin Timberlake or Vanity Fair. Exclusive street wear is still his preference, though (“Drug dealer chic”). He may occasionally sport a pair of Retro Jordan 1’s with a $100 plus Balmain tee, but best believe when it’s time to make the world look up at the scoreboard, he’s adorned in Tom Ford.
“DIRT OFF MY SHOULDER”
It’s literally on record that when Timbaland and Jay-Z share the same page they’re an unstoppable force. Timbaland’s zany keys and addictive bass knock allowed Hov to give one of this album’s best performances. With foolish flow and a pimp’s perceived persona as his metaphor, S. Dot inspired all to not only put their best foot forward, but not let obstruction (hater, habitat or other) impede forward movement. He even gives you personal examples for motivation: he rose from one of the worst neighborhoods in America to reach the top of Billboard’s charts, repeatedly; he now watches his favorite TV show, ESPN’s Sportscenter, at his very own sports-themed nightclub, 40/40; while dope boys root for him and admire that his escape from the illegal life has grown his hustle, MC’s hate because they can’t match the efforts of the best rapper alive.
10 years later…
This record is an unofficial Hip-Hop anthem. Its inspirational m.o. has spread so transcendently that the current and first Black President of the United States Barack Obama was seen on his initial campaign trail in 2008 dismissing haters by brushing his own shoulder (Yes, he used the wrong hand, but hey, it’s the sentiment that counts!). Months after Barack’s nod to Jay, Mrs. Carter would too be moved by her hubby’s work. She would release the track “Diva,” which hook plays like a feminist version of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (“A diva is a female version of a hustla.”).
Though Timbaland sporadically produced for Jay over the last decade––the two had a minor fall out until reconciling for the making of MCHG––they wouldn’t produce anything near the potency of “Dirt…” until collabing for Jay’s latest and finest produced composition since The Black Album.
In full Brooklyn-mode, Jay-Z is at his most aggressive here. Though he wasn’t dealing with the same dire dilemmas as he dealt with as a Marcy resident, his frustrations were sharp enough to provoke him back to a pre-1996 Jay. Shawn Carter has relapsed post-’96 and he reminded us––the blade that went into Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999 could’ve easily found itself inside another violator four years later. In fact, he, like so many who have passed through the American judicial system, was fresh off of probation, not rehabilitated and fed up with repeated urine tests.
Jay’s gripes were also current. The new C. Deloris Tucker aka Rapper Enemy #1 was the FOX network windbag Bill O’Reilly and he along with other critical forums were succeeding at getting under the Roc boss’s skin. He refused to let them make him appear crazy like Halle Berry or exposed like an earlier oft-scantily clad Christina Aguilera. He had no problem fighting back.
10 years later…
More power, more problems. These days, Jay’s issues and enemies are of a grander stature and tax bracket. As a recently certified sports agent, he’s been excessively scrutinized by the powers that be. The NFL and FBI have investigated Carter for what appeared to be more racist than probable causes. He endured a comb-through when he put his fitted cap in the ring to become a Nets owner. Once ownership was attained, the NBA fined him $50K for visiting the University of Kentucky basketball team’s locker room. Today’s Jay-Z haters come in every color, though. There are “Blue bloods” of the high society turning a nose up to him for keeping close ties, personal and professional, with those from his past, and the expected rapper or two throwing shots at the throne. One in particular even went as far as to threaten the kidnapping of Beyonce. Jay’s reply: “Good luck with that, bruh!”
“MOMENT OF CLARITY”
There are many moments on The Black Album where Jay allows himself to be vulnerable, but this track may be the most emotionally thorough. Over Eminem’s looming production, Marcy’s pen-less scribe writes his own catharsis. After finding more peace with the passing of his father, Jay addresses the criticism he’s received for diluting the lyrical intricacy of his earliest work in exchange for platinum riches. Here, he admits to this unapologetically, then retorts that although he wishes he could focus on the pure art of rhyme writing as much as Talib Kweli or Common, his priority is building an empire. Empires aren’t cheap––they cost millions to attain and maintain. In depth verses alone don’t afford you the capital to raise families and communities out of poverty or the opportunity to employ the needy or talented. Hov wanted his critics to understand that his decision to dumb his content down was one of true smarts.
10 years later…
Jay looks even smarter for his pen’s balancing act. With acts who have succeeded over the last ten years without possessing high-grade rap skills (ie. Young Jeezy and Wiz Khalifa) as well as stars like Nicki Minaj, whose biggest records are far from lyrical, it’s clear Carter knew what he was doing after going 5X platinum in 1998. Yet in Jay-Z’s constant defense, his ability to craft hit records that are nestled with premium wordplay is what has made him a God MC. Perfect examples of Hov’s Libra gift are the Sinatra x Hip-Hop Big Apple anthem “Empire State of Mind” and the global force that’s he and Ye’s “Niggas In Paris.” That both are hit records and Jay’s bars on each are premium is equally undeniable. Pretty sure Jay doesn’t desire rhyming like Common anymore.
The Black Album’s most innovative piece is this Rick Rubin-produced rocker. Still in defensive mode, Jay continues addressing his lyric’s critics, specifically those who claim that his content doesn’t stray far from loose women and dead presidents. To those uninformed folks, Jay offers his ass to be kissed. He then suggests they consider the child who grew up with holes in his shoes because their family couldn’t afford new then found riches as an adult. That adult most likely will celebrate the liberty of comfortable finance as often as possible. That adult is Shawn Carter.
The media continues to be outted. Radio stations as well as rap publications are scolded for requesting that Jay appear at their concerts or on their cover for the main purpose of selling more ads off of his star power. He refused to play their brand of ball. His position of power stood firm like the Roc of Gibraltar.
10 years later…
The saying “I’ve got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one” has imbued the Hip-Hop lexicon so richly that it now resides in pop culture’s vernacular. Jay has received less criticism for the big money in his sentences. Yet he grants rap media even less access than he did last decade, instead making himself available to white institutions such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone. His collaborative album with Kanye West, Watch The Throne, which documented arrogance afforded by excess and excess awarded by arrogance, was internationally acclaimed more than criticized. WTT’s purpose was to celebrate two MC’s crop crème status. Its creative process alone––week long stays at the Mercer hotel to private flights to Scotland to record more––was an exercise in stunting above competition and for the masses. Jay is even less apologetic for his ostentatious rap today than he was three years ago. Again, he’s only playing his brand of ball #newrules.
“PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT”
The last track to make the album is one of the most beloved. In supreme B-boy fashion, the CEO of the R.O.C gave listeners cliff notes to this CD’s content. He first grandstands with the finest blend of truth-n-swag. At the time, he was the undisputed rap champ. His girlfriend, who adorned one of his many pricey necklaces, was indeed the music industry’s reigning Queen. But Jay never rested his message on braggadocio alone. He was one of the best at qualifying his greatness, at educating how the master of ceremony is a byproduct of the man. He admits to being layered. Similar to if Cuban activist Che Guevara wore diamond-encrusted jewelry, he tells us that he balls as hard as he fights for good cause. Jigga completely understood the frowns inspired by his excessive spending. There were times when even he couldn’t explain why he spent dope boy reckless. At the end he chalked it up to being a hustler by blood, not relation.
10 years later…
The hottest chick in the game is no longer wearing Jay-Z’s chain. She’s now rocking his ring. The King of NY officially has an Aleida Guevara. While Jay’s philanthropy over the last 10 years has been notable, activism, despite a stronger corporate and political network, isn’t his strong suit & tie. As a millionaire in 2013, Che Guevara would’ve never let a business venture with a retail store cause him to hesitate standing against racism. Not to say Jay doesn’t speak out against systemic oppression or his enterprising isn’t motivational viewing for the disenfranchised. An example is his most recent appearance on Bill Mahr’s Real Time. Carter’s Cuban linked chain shared width with a TV remote, while his thoughts flirted with a future where an MC holds public office. He just wants us to always remember that no matter the era, cause or connect, his first priority is the hustle.
“JUSTIFY MY THUG”
From the ignition of this Madonna-inspired DJ Quik track, S.C. reaffirms for everyone how thorough his resume is. He informs that despite spending years as a criminal, he’s never been incarcerated nor a police informant. That he’s that much of a stand up guy and demands the same honesty and loyalty from his friends; those in his circle who can reciprocate his nobility have a great chance of also finding riches.
During his come-up, Jay wasn’t one to ask for assistance. He empathizes with dope boys who possess his same pride and entrepreneurial spirit, who would love to trade their illegal income for legal revenue. Unfortunately, America makes it arduous for those convicted of a crime to gain employment; becoming a business owner is damn near impossible. Yet drugs and liquor stores still flood the communities of those hustlers and Jigga suspects a conspiracy. He demands answers from his state’s Governor and country’s president.
10 years later…
Many of the associates and artists that were in Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella circle around 2003 are no longer around today. Rap fans were disappointed that Hovito didn’t keep artists like Freeway and Young Chris in the fold and fell out with Beanie Sigel so bad that the two would spend the latter five years trading jabs on record. Yet, he received the most sideeyes when he received full ownership of Roc-A-Fella Records––after he and co-owners Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke sold it to Def Jam––and exed his partners out. Since becoming the President of Def Jam, Jay hasn’t needed to ask for many handouts, but he surely didn’t take his business to the stratospheric heights it hovers at today alone. With his new manager John McNeilly to his right and Roc Nation VP Jay Brown to his left, Mr. Carter has risen his power so exponentially that he can now ask his President “Fuck is up?” in person.
This devilish fire exhibits a heated Jay-Z over scorching Kanye production. Similar to his couplets on “Dead Presidents,” the Jigga Man once again finds himself exorcising thoughts of revenge for a slain friend. Differing from the 1996 single that introduced him to rap masses, his approach here is more warning than confessional. It’s also not Jay speaking solely for himself. Listen farther and you’ll hear him echoing the frustration of those who have to go to school and work, raise families, essentially survive daily in proverbial war zones; the many involuntary soldiers who are faced with commit murder or be murdered. Jay tells that he doesn’t want these thoughts of revenge and murder anymore. They’re blocking his soul’s good energy and risking all that he’s built. He asked that we pray for the souls of he, his deceased friend and living adversary. All three men are sinners, but at their core they’re good.
10 years later…
It’s the producer of this song whose hometown is today’s murder capital. In fact, Jay’s line “We’re from the murder capital, where we murder for capital,” was borrowed eight years later by Kanye for the Watch The Throne beauty “Murder To Excellence.” Fortunately for Hov, life in 2013 offers much more peace than it did in 2003. In fact, on the aforementioned WTT track, he’s in a polar opposite space than the one he occupies on “Lucifer.” Without the beret and leather jacket, he begs for community unity and an end to senseless black-on-black killing. But though beef for him today is as rare as the butcher’s choice, Hovi still makes it clear that he’s the wrong one to be tested. Once in a while he may have to warn an MC that any offense to his family will require they relocate theirs, but normally life for the Carter’s is his Achilles heel: all love.
Jay-Z partners with no producer to better results than Pharrell Williams. Pha-Real is a master at taking the uncovered nuance of an artist’s story and blooming it. This gem of a track is as intoxicating as its subject matter. In nearly five minutes, Young Vito confesses to being consumed by hustling. He reveals that drug dealers suffer the same sickness as their customers: addiction. Once he received his first taste of the lifestyle spoils afforded by disposable currency––Mercedes that were as fast as the women who ached to ride in them, champagne contests for the entire nightclub to see, being able to turn January into July with one flight––he was hooked. The euphoria he felt the first time he rode in infamous Brooklynite Calvin Klein’s green BMW was unforgettable. He also remembers his dilemma then: crime did pay for him, but a drug dealer’s story always ends with them on a cell block or in a pine box.
10 years later…
A disgruntled and newly released Klein dimmed some of the luster from Jay’s autobiographical line/memory (the street legend accused Jay of building a career image on his likeness and not offering any reparation. The conflict appears to be resolved). Klein aside, Jay’s as much of an addict today as he’s ever been. He’s headily channeled his jones into raising an empire. The decade is only three years old and the King of Kings County is ahead my miles in Hip-Hop’s Business Man of the decade race. Diddy may have more net, but he––hell, most people on Earth––don’t have more business than El Heffe. A fiend for a new deal, the Jay-Z brand currently spans fashion (Rocawear), liquor (D’USSE cognac), sports (NBA owner to agent), nightlife (40/40 clubs), real estate (Barclays etc), and of course music (Roc Nation Records and management). Jay’s hustle has long passed being “So Russell.”
On what was supposed to be Jay’s final bow, he offers the blueprint to his success. Remaining committed to the analogy he birthed in 1997––the rap game is a mirror of the trap game––Marcy’s own credits his underworld teachings for the sensibilities that allowed him to climb to the top of Hip-Hop, cross names out and write “Jigga.” The balancing act of foresight, timing, finesse and muscle performed to lock down blocks of smokers was the same application he used to take the music industry by storm. Once Hov reached the throne, his toughest challenge awaited: staying there. On this track he offers his approach, one that was shared by his best friend and fellow rap genius from Brooklyn, B.I.G.: once you attain the riches, diamonds, limo rides and private jet flights, work as hard as if you were still yearning to obtain them with your first song.
10 years later…
Jay may have given away the recipe to his insatiable hunger to triumph, but he hasn’t deviated from these core principles at all. Firm proof of this is his constant ascent, which appears perpetual. Once President Carter reached his ceiling at Def Jam, he shook up the industry with a 1 of 1 deal for his own music factory. When critics dismissed his ability to sew superstar acts post Roc-A-Fella, he gave the world its biggest female rock star of color after wifey. Much of the fashion retail sphere disbelieved in Rocawear, until Hov upgraded the urban line to urbane. Not many of his victories, though, compete with a rapper from Marcy housing facilitating the Nets coming to Brooklyn as well as the building of its stadium. But who knows, this year Jay-Z traded in his NBA ownership for a sports agent certification. He currently manages the second best player in pro hoops and is seeking to make a Yankee the richest player in baseball history. Appears Brooklyn’s finest will be beating his high score for the rest of his life. Spectators just need to remember to always bet on Black.