Jay Z’s ‘The Black Album’ Turns 10: Backtracking

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

Back in 2003, when Kanye West was about to transition from in-demand producer to breakout rapper and Eminem‘s year of Eminem Show-“Lose Yourself” dominance finally faded into the rear view, Shawn Carter a.k.a. Jay Z was no doubt the best rapper alive. With the release of The Black Album on November 14, 2003, that fact was a given. And there’s nothing exciting about givens, so that year Hov announced his official retirement from hip-hop.

Ten years later, Jay Z is as influential and active in the rap game as ever, but back then, The Black Album was thought to be his final record, and promoted as such. The LP showed Jay at his most confident — he was dating America’s sweetheart (Beyonce), just opened the first 40/40 Club and was climbing the corporate ladder at Def Jam Records. His apparent swan song debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and went three times platinum. It also was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, but ironically lost to Kanye’s debut The College Dropout. Today, The Black Album celebrates its 10th anniversary — and the album remains arguably the rappers’ best work, as he masterfully balances keeping it street and flourishing with newfound wealth.

Jay Z’s previous album, The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse, was too pop-sounding for many critics’ liking, with songs like “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” and “Excuse Me Miss.” With The Black Album, the rapper showcased his versatility and growth, melding pop tendencies with grittiness to illustrate his rise from glorified drug dealer in the Marcy Projects to an international megastar.

Opening the record is the classic “December 4th,” a heartfelt autobiography from the MC, which is named after his birthday. Jay has never been afraid to disclose information about his pusher past, yet what makes this song special is its emotional attachment as he raps about his revelation that all of his pain derives from his father’s abandonment. Topping off the track are the interjections from his mother, Gloria Carter, where she reminisces on young Hova’s childhood.

In addition to the weighty emotions, The Black Album is so iconic because of the the flawless production. The R&B, funk and soul samples used as sturdy bases for his storytelling verses don’t just complement the songs, they amplify them. Take “What More Can I Say”: it samples Russell Crowe‘s famous “Are you not entertained” monologue from Gladiator. The song then trails into a triumphant, horn-filled victory lap that finds the rapper doing what he does best — bragging, of course. He made it clear that he’s truly number one with this closing verse: “And no I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times. Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines. And I ain’t animated like, say, Busta Rhymes. But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines. Add that to the fact I went plat’ a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list. We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” Case closed.

It’s also important to note this song alone completely wiped out the oversized jersey-wearing trend with this simple line: “And I don’t wear jerseys, I’m 30-plus. Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga, button up.” When Jay Z spoke, everyone listened — and that was just the beginning of his cultural impact. In comes the retirement tune, “Encore,” which shows off Kanye’s production genius and carves Jay Z’s place in rap history in his false send-off. The soulful sample (this time reggae singer John Holt‘s “I Will” cover) is elevated by the live band and backing vocals from then-unknown John Legend. The live performance-sounding tune even includes a convincing emcee prompting the crowd to chant HOVA! HOVA! What other rapper could pull that off? Rap’s Grateful Dead, that’s who.

Jay has his share of more hardcore anthems like “Money, Cash, Hoes,” “Takeover” and “Renegade,” but he definitely knows how to make a commercially viable pop single — and he has Pharrell to thank for much of that. The Neptunes producer has given the rapper successful radio hits for years: their first collaboration yielded 2000’s “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me),” followed by “Excuse Me Miss”, Pharrell’s own “Frontin'” and The Black Album‘s “Change Clothes.” The sparkling sound effects and synthesized piano loop, combined with Pharrell’s silky accompanying vocals, make for a track that was easily bounced in the urban clubs and completely playable on MTV.

When you ask Jay Z fans which producer has provided him with his best work, though, you’re unlikely to get a consensus. Some will cite Just Blaze, but many will credit the legendary Timbaland, who pushed the rapper outside his comfort zone on numerous tracks, including the grimy “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” The album’s second official single, which became Jay Z’s third-highest peaking song on Billboard, sounds like a video game being played by aliens on Mars — it’s dizzying as much as it is infectious.

But The Black Album does have weak moments, like the predictable “Renegade” bootleg that is “Moment of Clarity” — both produced by Eminem. But the record quickly saves itself with follow-up tracks like the devilish “Lucifer,” which once again shows off Yeezy’s skills behind the boards. Plus, one of the strongest songs in Jay Z’s entire catalog is the raucous, Rick Rubin-produced “99 Problems.” The rock n’ roll-inspired “middle finger to the law” (with samples from Slick Rick, Ice-T, Billy Squier and more) tells a story about racial profiling from police officers that is paired with an aggressive, percussion-heavy production.

One of the best tracks on the album, “Public Service Announcement,” is most definitely not your average album interlude. This 2:53-minute tune single-handedly solidified Jay Z as a future legend for not just rap, but the entire music industry. It boasts some of his catchiest lines to date: “I shoot at you actors like movie directors” and “Get your umbrellas out because that’s when I brainstorm.” He even “has the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain” — alluding to Bey. Any true HOV fan knows the entire song by heart and will not hesitate to show it off. Play this at any basement party, NYC club or in a stadium and the entire room will raise the ROC sign high and proud.

The Black Album is a solid package that celebrates Jay Z at the pinnacle of his music career, as he raps like he has nothing left to prove but everything to gain. He already had bona fide rap classics under his belt with Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint, but with this effort he successfully cemented his place in history as one of the greatest of all time. So despite his much-hyped retirement, Jay Z knew he couldn’t leave the game just yet, not after an album like this. Not after an album that proved — to himself and his fans — he had so much left in the tank. Ten years and five studio albums later, Jay continues to be a rap leader as well as a music mogul, and, yes, on Magna Carta Holy Grail he tried too hard to convince people that he’s still the best. But The Black Album is so strong that we’ll forgive any missteps that came in its wake. The Black Album made him king, and the king doesn’t have to get off that throne until someone else takes it away.

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