Remember that press conference where Michael Jordan claimed to be “done” with the game of basketball and wanted to pursue “other interests”? That’s kind of what it feels like to listen to Jay-Z’s “last” offering, The Black Album.
You want to believe he’s being serious but somehow you know he’s going to bat .200 in the minors, come crawling back to the game he owns, and lock it down for us just a few more times.
Or at least, let’s hope so; because while this album is probably one of hip-hop’s highlights of the year, it just doesn’t seem like a swan song fit for the king.
The album starts with a short speech about all things coming to an end, reminding us that this is indeed our boy’s retirement speech.
Then we are treated to a uniquely imagined song, “December 4th” in which Hova raps in between sound bytes of his mother, Gloria Carter, talking about his upbringing. Discussing his love of sports, early lyrical abilities, and the purchase of his first boom box, the mother-son collaboration reaffirms that Jay-Z is at his best talking, rather than bragging, about his life.
The remainder of the album meanders between brag rhymes, misogynistic musings, club bangers, sentimental remembrances, and even a few classics. Simply put, the LP feels more like a mixtape displaying the many layers of hip-hop’s most versatile player, rather than a cohesively conceived project like Reasonable Doubt or Blueprint.
Kanye West, the Game’s hottest beat chef of the moment, provides the most appealing tracks on the sporadic menu.
“Encore” uses a unique blend of dancing piano chords, a jumpy drum line, classic trumpets, and a latin-style shaker to create a platform from which Jay-Z begs his audience “one last time to roar.”
“Lucifer,” West’s other contribution, combines his trademarked sped-up soul vocals — think “U Don’t Know” and “Never Change” off Blueprint — along with a beat that will blow the windows out of any club.
Other high points include “99 Problems,” produced by Def Jam co-founder and Beastie Boy’s production genius Rick Rubin. Over electric guitar riffs, clave pounding and some serious bass drum intensity, Jay-Z talks about his current lack (!) of girl problems.
On the Eminem-produced “Moment of Clarity” Jay-Z explains his whole agenda. “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them/ So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win win.”
The Neptunes, of course, chip in with the disappointingly understated “Change Clothes” and “Allure,” while Timbaland again misses the mark in collaboration with Jay on “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
All in all, while this album leaves a little to be desired — at least from the God MC — you can’t help but think this is just his first departure from the game.
In a recent interview, Jay-Z said that he was retiring because he felt no one was challenging him in the game. “If a Kobe or T-Mac comes along, you never know,” he mused.
Let’s just hope the competition steps up, so he can break us off with one more game-winning shot.
Jordan drives, crosses up Russell, shoots the 16-footer