Fifteen years ago, in the midst of a creative rut and middle-aged ambivalence, Jay-Z made a great album. It was built on an idea never happened: Jay-Z was supposed to retire after The Black Album and, spoiler alert, did not follow through on that. No one with a shred of common sense — his friends, collaborators, fans, Jay — believed him when he said it was his last album. But the hook worked. 15 years later, it still sounds like a farewell tour compressed into a single album. Fade To Black still feels like a victory lap. It also worked as a marketing trick, and Jay learned from that as well as you’d expect a businessman-turned-business to. Since that moment, every Jay-Z album comes prepped with a tight, definable narrative. The Black Album was the moment Shawn Carter perfected selling Jay-Z as a product, one that’s reinvented every few years. It’s a sales model that will last until his actual retirement, something we may never see.
Since 2006, there’s been the post-retirement album, the self-mythologizing soundtrack that wasn’t a soundtrack, two pop albums (each with their own distinct pitch, though one of those pitches was just “I’m rich and like art and Samsung”), and the “I cheated on my wife and grew up” album. There’s also the crowning of the protégé album and the reunited and stronger than ever album, if you dive into Jay’s collaborative efforts. The quality peaked and plateaued, but listeners were never left searching for what kind of Jay would arrive on each album. Each project was a state of the union.
“Give me a little more credit than that. I could think of other ways to get attention,” Jay-Z defensively told Touré in a 2003 New York Times interview. He was asked if his retirement was a publicity stunt. He said no, but it was. Every piece of major label music is a publicity stunt by necessity, wrapped in an artistic package. His stated reason for leaving the genre behind was clear. According to him “The game ain’t hot,” and hip-hop was now “corny.”
The Black Album is a work of sheer disgust at the excess of success. Jay pleads with the audience, “What more can I say to you? You heard it all,” which is severely depressing and darkly humorous when you consider how bored the world’s most successful rapper has to be in order to make an entire song about the subject. “There’s never been a nigga this good for this long / This hood or this pop, this hot or this strong,” Jay spits over the “Something for Nothing” sample. In 2003, Hov was operating in a space where social media was barely in its infancy, stealing digital files was more of a concern than streaming, organizing discs into a binder was still a thing. Eminem was about to run into a creative wall he’d never recover from, 50 Cent hadn’t reached the zenith of his commercial power, Kanye West was far from being a lyrical peer, Aubrey Graham was still a teen soap opera star.
Jay’s eighth studio is a king’s tantrum masked as a moment of lionization. He asked if we wanted an encore, but before anyone can answer he places his name next to Michael Jordan and The Grateful Dead. His mom reminisces about his childhood on “December 4th,” while Jay reckons with his father’s death on “99 Problems.” Even a song like “Change Clothes” serves a clear purpose, the trading of throwback jerseys for collared shirts seemingly a test to see how far Hov could push the “grown and sexy” shtick before it buckled under its own pompous weight.
“99 Problems” is the only true retirement on The Black Album. Vicious, succinct, perfect, no Hov song since has reached that height of fury tempered by effortless control. Critics, radio, magazines and the police all get it, three minutes and fifty-four seconds of Jay being a petty god. When Jay-Z raps, “I’m from rags to riches, niggas, I ain’t dumb” it’s the crystallization of a life. The anger, ego and ferocity that honed the first half of Hov’s career were no longer sustainable prospects for a man dating Beyoncé who would go on to rub elbows with the President. The faces and skin tones of the people doubting Shawn Carter were changing, and he morphed into something else to meet that challenge.
A part of Jay-Z retired and died in 2003. Hip-hop is arguably still as “corny” as it was fifteen years ago, which is part of its indelible charm. Jay was lured back, and hasn’t left since. He’s now charting a career arc that no rapper has ever had, and he knows better than anyone exactly how to sell it.