It’s rare for a rapper to make a goodbye album — generally the marketplace kicks you out of the game first. But Jay-Z is a rare rapper. The dominant figure of the post-Biggie and -Tupac era, he spit cool and witty with devastating flows, dropped classic albums, influenced MCs, changed pop culture and built a tall stack of dollars in the process.
Time will tell whether or not The Black Album is Jay-Z’s final release, but it certainly is a goodbye album. He’s settling scores and letting us deeper into his life than ever. He talks in depth about his parents, giving his mother, Gloria Carter, time to shine on the opening song, “December 4th.” On the Eminem-produced “Moment of Clarity,” he invokes the memory of his father, Adnes: “Pop died/Didn’t cry/Didn’t know him that well/Between him doin’ heroin and me doin’ crack sales.” But by the end of the verse, he has forgiven his late father and says to him, “Save a place in heaven till the next time we meet forever.”
The Black Album has a dream team of producers, including Kanye West (“Lucifer,” “Encore”), Just Blaze (“December 4th”), the Neptunes (“Change Clothes,” “Allure”) and Timbaland, whose obese club-banger “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” easily wins the prize for best beat, with Rick Rubin’s raucous, rock-drenched “99 Problems” a close second.
Given one last chance to make an impact, Jay-Z has come up with one of the better albums of his career, though perhaps a shade lesser than his very best, Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint. Still, we’ve witnessed not merely a Hall of Fame career but one of the top-shelf greatest of all time, up there with Rakim, Big, Pac and Nas. And like every great rapper, Jay-Z has never been afraid to tell us he’s Number One. On “What More Can I Say,” he rhymes, “Pound for pound I’m the best to ever come around here/Excluding nobody.” He could be right.