Jay-Z has been talking retirement almost as long as he’s been making records, but the pomp surrounding his new release, The Black Album, suggests this time he might make good on his claims. The new set’s street date was recently pushed up to November 28th, “Black Friday.”
In New York City this week, the rapper offered a sampling of the music from the record, which plays out like the culmination of a career, with myriad references to his life and times. While Jay spoke of his two most recent recordings — The Blueprint (2001) and The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse — as echoing 1997’s In My Lifetime: Volume 1 and 1998’s Volume 2: Hard Knock Life, The Black Album was composed and recorded as a career summation, but one that didn’t rely on the styles and sounds of his previous recordings, but looked back to when he first started rapping.
To that end, the album features Jay and only Jay making the rhymes, with an all-star group of producers including the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, Eminem, Kanye West and pioneering hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. The Rubin-produced track “99 Problems” sounds pulled from a time capsule, matching Jay-Z’s vocal with the heavy guitar, bass and drums that Rubin helped usher in two decades ago. “I’ve always admired Rick Rubin,” Jay said. “When I started this record, I made a wish list of producers I wanted to work with and he was up at the top.”
Rubin returned the respect and admiration. “He’s incredible,” he says of Jay-Z. “I’ve really never seen anybody do what he does. He never writes anything down lyrically. He gets in a room and listens to the music over and over again, humming, and eventually says ‘I got it.’ Then he runs into another room does a long complicated verse and chorus. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s almost like a jazz saxophonist playing a solo.”
As for the retirement plans, Rubin says, “I hope it’s not his last album.”
The album’s opening cut is a bit of biography titled “December 4th” (the day Jay entered the world as Shawn Carter). Jay tricked his mother into visiting the studio before they headed out for a birthday dinner and recorded her recollections of his childhood which are interspersed throughout the track.
Eminem adds production on the track “Moment of Clarity,” which has Rocky-ish echoes of Em’s own hit, “Lose Yourself,” and one of the top artists on the Roc-a-Fella roster, Kanye West, recorded “Encore,” which despite the title isn’t the twelve-song album’s final cut. That, paradoxically, would be “The First Song,” which references his start in the business.
As for Jay’s plans, he said he hopes to take a year off from any sort of guest rhyming after the release of The Black Album. He will, however, do a full round of publicity behind the record. He’ll actually start duty a few days before the album’s release, with a November 25th concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The show will benefit the Shawn Carter Foundation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. An all-star lineup is promised, though organizers have been tight-lipped about guests. Tickets for the event sold out within twenty-four hours of their going on-sale.