The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella)
It is the pinnacle of ballsiness to open an album with your mama talking about your birth as though you were Jesus. “He was the last of my four children, the only one who didn’t give me any pain when I gave birth to him,” says Gloria Carter, mother of the Blessed One, Jay-Z, on the opening track of her son’s new CD. “That’s how I knew he was a special child.” But ballsiness is the foundation of hip-hop, and Jay-Z, a lyricist who gave himself the messianic nickname J-Hova, has perhaps the biggest balls in the business. Yet the rapper’s recent albums have been filled with empty expressions of self-confidence (even Jay-Z’s biggest fans concede that the beats were often more compelling than his lyrics). The Black Album, a project Jay-Z says will be his last, delivers on the promise that peeked through his uneven breakthrough Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and permeated his debut, Reasonable Doubt. Now, as then, Jay-Z’s lyrics are novelistic in detail, lending a sense of clarity that comes with the best of hip-hop. Jay-Z seems to realize that his talent for specificity is what gives him such a huge advantage over his competitors. “They don’t paint pictures,” he taunts on “What More Can I Say,” “they just trace me.” He’s also smartly transformed his platinum-rapper arrogance into a young, untested artist’s fight-ready pugilism. Near the end of “What More Can I Say,” the music drops out and Jay-Z lets loose a barrage of rhymes and then an exhausted sigh as though he were a boxer back in his corner after a particularly brutal round. It’s thrilling; moments like this are scarce in smug, self-satisfied hip-hop. As large as Jay-Z looms on The Black Album, his engineer Young Guru is just as towering a presence. Guru’s worked with Jay-Z before, most memorably on 2001’s Blueprint. That album could have been great if Jay-Z had matched his producer’s spectacular beat-making, which combines the sentimental strings of early-seventies R&B with the horn-fueled bombast of blaxploitation-soundtrack soul. Here, at last, Jay-Z and Young Guru are equals. Farewell albums are usually shticky stuff, but The Black Album (excluding a lapse in judgment or two, like an interpolation of Madonna’s “Justify My Love”) is the real deal: a good-bye where the artist leaves the stage, reputation intact.