The Black Album
There are plenty of good reasons why The Black Album is such a pivotal JAY-Z album. For starters, it’s beautifully written—a record heavy on personal detail, but not too bogged down to lose sight of the outside world. And while JAY-Z keeps up with the mainstream (as on the Timbaland-produced smash “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”), he has enough self-respect to know that he’s most at home with the kind of sounds he grew up with—so long as he can modify them for a new era, as he does on “Encore” and “99 Problems.” Most importantly, The Black Album finds Jay confronting his mid-thirties—a time when some artists begin to check out or compromise—and deciding that accepting your age doesn’t mean sacrificing your vitality. He once said he never thought his own life was particularly special—after all, every family has its mythologies. But when your livelihood depends in part on making your listeners understand your struggles as their own, The Black Album’s inward turn offers a newly relatable JAY-Z. He lets you into his world, and the various roles he plays in it, whether it’s as a son (“Moment of Clarity,” “December 4th”), as a Black American male (“99 Problems”), or as someone who always feels best when they’re breaking through and moving forward (“My 1st Song”). That kind of confessional honesty anchors The Black Album: When Jay feels like a pimp, he honors it (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”). But he’s no longer afraid to say he feels like a cappuccino, either (“My 1st Song”). You won’t mistake your life for his—if we could all be him, there are probably a lot more people who would. But the relatively human scale of The Black Album showed rap fans that longevity in rap was possible; that you could age into yourself without aging out of the art. The rumor that greeted the album’s release—a rumor he later wrote off as a miscommunication—was that Jay was going to retire. And so he goes out and raps like you’d need an army to hold him back. “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex,” goes a line on “Public Service Announcement.” Maybe it’s that simple.