Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Jay-Z -- The Black Album
Roc-A-Fella; 2003

Somewhere, right now, Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) is giggling in the manliest way possible. He's watching with glee as the rap and pop worlds try to make sense of his apparent retirement and his parting gift, The Black Album. Some speculate this is just a ploy to see what happens when rap's most popular MC ducks out for some golf time, only to return as its wayward messiah. Hova hoax or just a legitimate attempt to chill in the Hamptons, The Black Album is a fantastic bookend to an even better career.

The Black Album kicks off with "December 4th," Jay-Z's "This Is Your [Hard Knock] Life" moment. Carter crisply chronicles his early years over Just Blaze's cheesy yet appropriate string and horn lines. The track also features the album's only guest "MC," his precious mother.

A sample from "The Gladiator" opens the next track, demanding of the listener "Are you not entertained?" That in mind, Carter psyches himself up to deliver the stunning lyrical punch of "What More Can I Say," an "explanation" for his impending departure. Jigga deftly tosses off accusations of being fickle at critics while bobbing and weaving through relatively unkown producers The Buchannans' excellent fanfare production. "I supposed to be number one on everybody's list / we'll see what happens when I no longer exist."

The Black Album only increases in quality from there, providing some of Carter's best produced tracks to date. "Encore" envisions Hov in front of a sold out crowd, seemingly insecure about their support until they shout his name back at him in a frenzied chant. The track, produced by Kanye West is musicly solid -- its gospel-choir wailing soulfully over the delightfully hazy orchestra. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," while nothing lyrically spectacular, is blessed with Timbaland's club-bhanging beats; woozy synth swells popping up like ghosts throughout the perpetual rat-a-tat-BOOM snare/bass drum patterns.

The DJ Quik-produced "Justify My Thug" is a surprise hit, taking its premise from the Madonna song of similar title. The dark, rippling bass-synth and keyboard whines give the song a near electro feel that nicely compliments the grim subject matter Carter rhymes about -- further alluding to his intentions for leaving. "Lucifer" is similarly morbid, flowing about vicious revenge over piano splashes and a menacingly finger-picked bass guitar line. The album is capped off by, ironically, "My 1st Song," which highlights Carter's ferocious MC chops in a way that is fitting for what would be his last song.

Although The Black Album rates among Jigga's top three albums (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint filling the other two slots), there are a few low points -- mostly at the fault of the producers. The Neptunes contribute two mediocre tracks with "Change Clothes" and "Allure," neither of which embodies the impressive potential of the boys. The production also gives Jay-Z little inspiration to put forth more than a tired delivery.

While admittedly humorous, "99 Problems" gets old quickly, repeatedly slapping the listener in the face with recycled guitar riffs assembled by famous weird-beard producer, Rick Rubin. "Moment of Clarity" is a typical overdramatic Eminem-produced track that leaves the listener craving "Renegade," the pair's killer track from The Blueprint.

Jay-Z has been faced with a serious dilemma since the beginning of his career. While arguably a better MC than his famously deceased brethren Tupac and Biggie Smalls, he is actually disadvantaged by still being alive. Perhaps living legends aren't as cool. I suppose the next best thing to dying is retiring, which allows him to keep the sobriquet of "the best rapper alive" and still removes him from the game. The Black Album is a great way to leave: amazing rhymes coupled with a diverse array of production. I hope you enjoy retirement Hov, but I'm sure that rap will have you back whenever you'd like.

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