Why I feel Jay-Z’s Black Album is only his 5th best.

Written by Wil

Let me start by admitting right off the bat that my opinion may be wrong. Earlier today, I released my Magna Carta…Holy Grail review and included my ranking of Jay’s albums. I’ve gotten almost as much feedback on the ranking as I have on the review! I’m definitely biased and skewed when it comes to ranking the Black Album. I know that music is subjective, but BA is widely considered no worse than his 3rd best album. I ranked it fifth, and I’ll explain why.

12 Songs. 12 Producers.

The Black Album. Originally Biggie’s idea. Release an album with no promotion. No announced release date. No radio single. No cover – just black. A very novel concept. Jay wanted to do the same. Jay, being the businessman that he is, realized that wasn’t the most financially prudent thing to do. So he scrapped that idea.

What he decided, however, was that the album would be a prelude to Reasonable Doubt. The records would represent the time leading up to the recording his first album. His last song, My First Song, would be the events leading up to him writing his first real record. It would be the perfect way to close his career. Something that’s never been done before. A complete concept album. Reliving his days as a hustler struggling to become a rapper. Brilliant.

(Sidenote: I’m fairly confident that this idea eventually ended up being the groundwork of American Gangster.)

Unfortunately, he later decided that he couldn’t ignore everything going on in his present life and if this was going to be his last ever foray on wax, that he had to share his current life with the world. I get it. The last album I recorded as an artist, “ninety-four”, was originally supposed to be a concept record, too. It was supposed to only reference things that had taken place in or before that year. I wouldn’t use any slang from before that era. A close friend of mine DJ Cinema collects Source Magazines and gave me the entire year’s worth so I could get the facts and slang right. I ended up scrapping that idea and touching on topics that were current in my life as well, including my family and career.

Just because I understand his reasoning doesn’t mean it isn’t disappointing.

So, his final concept was “12 Songs. 12 Producers” (see the add above). Jay was planning on doing one record with each of his favorite producers. Premo, Just Blaze, Kanye, Dr. Dre, etc. One record each to truly capture his career. The list of producers was used in the ad and promoted in magazines and we were all excited.

That idea was eventually scrapped as well.

So, for me, the album was met with a touch of disappointment right off the bat. Justify My Thug – a hook and beat which I hate – was originally supposed to feature Madonna crooning her vocals. Apparently, the album was due to be turned in on a Friday and she couldn’t make it to the studio until Monday, so that idea was compromised, too. Another let-down.

Albums often go through many different iterations. Watch the Throne supposedly went through three. I’m not mad, but it’s impossible not to be disappointed at what could’ve been. The album still turned out great. One of Jay’s best. It reminds me a lot of Nas’ “I Am…Nastradamus”. The album leaked over a month early. It originally featured much of what made “Lost Tapes” great – songs such as Blaze a 50, Fetus and Poppa Was a Playa. Combined with NY State of Mind and Project Windows, Nas had an all-time great album on his hand. After it leaked, Sony decided to scrap a majority of the project and have Nas record new records – all within a few weeks. Thus, we ended up with songs like K-I-S-S-I-N-G instead. Instead of a double album, Sony decided to release two albums in an eight month span. They wanted to include those cut songs on the second album, Nastradamus, but Nas wanted to record an entirely new album within that short window (thank you ***).

The point of that story was, I Am… still turned out to be a pretty good album. But when you compare it to what it could’ve and should’ve been? It’s difficult not to be disappointed. Fair or not.

So yea, Black Album is a really dope album. But I don’t look at it in the same vein as some. It had its bright moments and its warts. It was very close to the Hard Knock Life album. Black Album was newer and had a ton of hype, so I think we tend to let that cloud our view.

Let me give credit. VERY rarely does an artist (or the media) hype something up and then release something that actually lives up to the hype. Classic albums, great albums, they usually sneak up on you. Last year, Wale proclaimed that his Ambition album would be better than Reasonable Doubt. That creates an almost impossible standard to live up to. Blueprint snuck up on us. Reasonable Doubt snuck up on us. On the Black Album, Jay created all the hype around his retirement and then released an album that lived up to it. That deserves a tremendous kudos.

I don’t know how much of the acclaim belongs to the event that Jay created. His retirement from the industry, his Madison Square Garden concert (first rapper to headline MSG in 20 years, sold out inside of a minute and no opening acts), the release of his S. Carter Reeboks on the same day as the album, which was released on the biggest shopping day of the year (Black Friday). Jay is great at creating events (Kingdom Come debuting in a Budweiser commercial, Magna Carta’s Samsung partnership, etc.). I think people looked at this album as a celebration of his career and nobody wanted to say a negative word about it. We wanted to send him off as a conquering hero. Whereas his Vol. 2 album snuck up on us and received its praise simply for being a great album.

PSA, Moment of Clarity, 99 Problems and Encore are all-time great Jay records. December 4th, Lucifer, Allure, What More Can I Say were all amazing songs. My 1st Song – tho it didn’t stick to the concept – turned out to be terrific as well. The 9th Wonder produced Threat helped catapult 9th’s career to a star-type level. Change Clothes and Dirt Off Your Shoulder weren’t the greatest Jay singles ever, but they did their job. Justify was really the album’s only misstep. As I type this, I start to wonder if I rated this album too low on the list. It really is impressive.

I don’t think there is much of a gap between this and his other top albums, but I think it rates just a bit lower. It lacked the innovation of American Gangster. Jay is so often lambasted for being too rich and talking about it. Well, he created an entire album from the perspective of someone who’s still on the bottom. It was genius, to me. I’ve never seen an artist go back to his roots and actually sound authentic after achieving success.

And Vol. II is so underrated to me. Yes, it had a lot of songs that were on the radio, but that album was the epitome of innovation, to me. The beats were incredible. Money, Cash, Hoes – there hadn’t even been anything like that before. And the Annie sample on Hard Knock Life?? These songs literally changed the hip-hop landscape. Nigga What was so futuristic and featured Jay with an unmatched quick flow that he hadn’t displayed since he abandoned it prior to Reasonable Doubt. A Week Ago is among Jay’s best ever storytelling records and Reservoir Dogs is among his best ever collaborations. He had an endless stream of hits and on that album. It literally catapulted him into superstardom.

There’s a good chance that I’m wrong about this and am ranking it based on emotion, and that’s fine. If I just listen to the album song for song? Maybe I feel different. But music is emotion. I wanted to explain my thinking in response to the tweets I’ve been getting throughout the day. A great album, Jay’s fifth best, in my opinion, and better than the best album of 98% of any other hip-hop artist’s catalog.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments before.


Follow me on twitter: @CultureVI

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