I’m a Jay Z fan. Been one since his early days in the mid 1990’s. I’ve made no secret of that. When I was a member of the Sports Illustrated affiliated site Fannation, my user name was J.Hova. I was that committed in my fandom. That’s why I have to drop a quick blog on what would have been Jay’s retirement album: The Black Album.
The Black Album was originally to be released on November 28, 2003 but was pushed up because of rampant bootlegging. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I can tell you that it wasn’t uncommon to see a bootlegger on Flatbush Avenue (or Fulton Street) peddling a Jay Z album a few weeks before it’s release and the Black Album was no different. The dudes on the Ave already had it, and Jay was risking album sales by waiting until the 28th. So, he moved it up to the 14th. The Black Album, influenced by The Beatles’ The White Album, was supposed to be Jay’s graceful exit from the rap game. Shawn Carter was ready to move on to the next phase, which was his term as President of the label Def Jam. With that anticipation, The Black Album hit the world.
Lyrically, and beat wise, the album is a bit of a disappointment. It doesn’t match the highs of Reasonable Doubt, or the Blueprint. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good album. If you look at his entire discography it’s solidly in the top half of his best albums, but it wore old quick. It just didn’t have the longevity of his other albums, and it lacked the singular impact of other releases. However, The Black Album does contain my favorite Jay song of all time but before I get into that, let me give you some more personal background of who and where I was on 11/14/2003.
At the time I was 21 years old, a student/graduate assistant at St. John’s University, and I actually reported late for work that day because I stopped off to buy the CD before coming in to assist a professor with proctoring an exam. I walked out of the Circuit City in Gateway Mall, popped open the packaging on the disc and slid it in the CD player. I then proceeded to race up the Belt Parkway, cruise down Cross Bay/Woodhaven Boulevard, and bop my way across Union Turnpike to the University. By the time I reached campus I had certain songs memorized and beats stuck in my head. The professor who’s exam I was supposed to proctor? Was a little pissed but I didn’t care. Why?
By the time I walked into my department’s office, I was all about What More Can I Say, Encore, Dirt Off Your Shoulder, 99 Problems and my 2nd favorite track off the album: December 4th. Like Jay, I’m a Sagittarius, a December child, and a Momma’s boy, so I liked the title off top and hearing his Mom share personal stories on the track. If this was his final album I liked that he was willing to get that personal. It made me feel something in common with the dude, even though I don’t really have much in common with him (besides the whole Brooklyn, Sagittarius, Momma’s boy, and December thing). So, yeah I loved December 4th but it’s something about track 13 off the Black Album that made my eyes get wide, and almost ruined the rewind button on my CD player.
Track 13 is better known as Allure and known to me as my favorite Jay Z record of all damn time. Hov couldn’t top that for me if he tried. The Pharrell Williams track sounds like a movie. So much so that Jay says on the track that he’s starring in “Hovito’s Way”. The track is littered with Carlito’s Way referrences, one of my favorite films, and the beat does sound like it would fit in the scene where Carlito is on his way to meet Gail at the train station just before he’s gunned down by up and comer Benny Blanco. Remember this was supposed to be Jay’s final album, and just like Carlito he wanted out of the game, on top and doing it his way, but of course he was wary of the young dudes that wanted his spot. Around 2002, 2003, there were comments attributed to Jay where he recognized that there were kids who wanted his spot and he wanted to bow out before he was forced out. Allure is an almost 5 minute vivid lyrical discourse of where Jay Z was, where Shawn Carter was, and where the rap game was in that moment. The craziest thing about Allure? It’s Jay’s favorite song too. Maybe I do have more in common with the guy after all.
As we all know Jay Z didn’t retire. Good thing because we wouldn’t have American Gangster (a personal favorite but barely went platinum), or his collaboration with Kanye West: Watch The Throne. The Black Album was a high point for Jay commerically and professionally, and even though I stated the album was a lyrical and beat disappointment (seen through the eyes of many not just myself) it was also a high point in his career that he hasn’t quite matched. The Black Album might have been fueled by the retirement talk, but sometimes I wonder what if he did gracefully bow out? What if he refused that last job and just left the game to the Benny Blanco’s? The World may never know, just like we didn’t know 10 years ago on November 14, 2003.
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