Jay-Z's "retirement" is possibly the greatest public-relations stunt since Tupac Shakur's "death." It's impossible to know whether or not he's serious. He's been claiming an impending retirement for his entire career; supposedly his first album, Reasonable Doubt, was originally intended to be his last. Rappers, of course, are born hucksters, selling us fictionalized images of themselves, and Jay-Z is one of the best flim-flam men the genre has even known "I am a hustler, baby/ I could sell water to a whale," he told us two albums ago. Jay-Z has always trafficked in rumor and speculation; he's certainly made the most of the persistent rumor that he made hundreds of thousands through drug sales before he started rapping, and he milks rumors of feuds with rival rappers for months before launching full-scale assaults, as he did with NaS in 2001 and seems primed to do with 50 Cent now. He gives conflicting ideas about his retirement throughout the new The Black Album, alluding to "when I come back like Jordan wearing the 45" one song after saying, "We'll see what happens when I no longer exist."
As fascinating as it may be to watch Jay play with persona and expectation, all this is ultimately just a publicity stunt, and it says nothing about the actual quality of The Black Album. So let's just put all that to the side for now, simply saying that The Black Album is a spectacular farewell if that's what it turns out to be. Jay-Z is simply an incredible rapper, one of the best ever by any standard. His delivery is precise, crisp, and unexaggerated. His lyrics are evocative, emotional, and economical. He does amazing things with implication and the simple pauses that pepper his speech. And he has at his disposal a stunning array of production talent, talent that he consolidates here.
For several years, Jay has nurtured styles of Just Blaze and Kanye West, the two house producers of Roc-A-Fella records, Jay's label. Blaze and West have similar styles; they use samples of old soul records to build lustrous, luxurious, textured tracks, and both contribute some of their best work to The Black Album. Blaze's Chi-Lites-derived horn trills on "December 4th" are absolute heaven, while West combines a nimble, intricate acoustic bassline and an insidious Max Romeo sample on the masterful "Lucifer." Jay has also wrung some of the best work from hip-hop's greatest working producer, Timbaland, and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," Tim's contribution to The Black Album, is dazzling. Though Tim dials down his usual futuristic clatterfunk to fit the album's introspective tone, he still works in a sticky hook and a huge pocket that Jay effortlessly falls into. The best track may be from Rick Rubin, who hasn't done much with hip-hop since the mid-'80s heydays of LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Rubin returns to form on "99 Problems" like it was still 1986; metal guitars pound, cowbells ring, and sirens squeal gloriously. The one big disappointment comes from The Neptunes, whose two tracks represent the Virginia production duo at their obnoxiously schmaltzy worst. Jay keeps them around for Sinatra-in-Vegas swinging snap, but he doesn't need them and they don't deliver.
After Biggie Smalls died in 1997, Jay-Z became the king of New York hip-hop because he knew the throne was his. Jay's confidence is what sets him apart from hundreds of other rappers; he was never hungry, and he never had anything to prove to anyone (maybe those drug-running rumors are true). He dispatches foes with offhand one-liners instead of full-frontal assaults. (My favorite off this album: "I'm a hustler, homey/ You a customer, crony/ I got some dirt on my shoulder; could you brush it off for me?" from "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "We Rat Pack niggas, let same tap-dance on you and/ I Sinatra shot ya, goddam you" from "Threat.") But there's more to Jay's delivery than his confidence; he has a plaintive melancholy to his voice, a weariness. This is used to great effect on The Black Album, as Jay muses on his mother's travails in raising him (on "December 4th") and his disingenuous regret that he never emulated more noncommercial rappers (on "Moment of Clarity"). Jay almost (almost) does away completely with his misogyny still his greatest flaw as a lyricist and retains his keen eye for detail and allusion. The album has no guest appearances from other rappers an extreme rarity in commercial hip-hop and it's to Jay's credit that his voice never becomes monotonous. He's just too interesting.
So I hope this isn't his last album. I'll keep listening closely for clues.