If Jay-Z decides to hang up his diamond-studded spurs after this album, at least he can go out a winner. The Black Album is no Blueprint or Reasonable Doubt, though it's at least as good as Vol. 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter, and it shares the intensely personal qualities that made those ones so good. As Jay's last statement, The Black Album is a combination of "praise me" and "fuck you;" his coup de grace to detractors as well as fans. His hustler's history ranks prominent in the lyrics here and though you've heard the subject matter all before, Jay finds compelling ways to reintroduce it on songs like "December 4," and "Public Service Announcement," both produced beautifully by Just Blaze. Great touches are all over the place here, and from a host of different producers. Checkout the Max Romeo-lifted vocal on Kanye's "Lucifer" or the straight heat of "Threat," which might as well be "Come and Get Me Pt. 2," produced by newcomer 9th Wonder from Little Brother, who might have the unknowing thinking Primo. The Buchanans likewise pull off a great Just Blaze imitation on "What More Can I Say," where Jay goes on the offensive/defensive about his track record; which could also describe "Encore," the very next song, produced subtly by Kanye West. For a bigger contrast in styles, there's the loud and brash "99 Problems," a Rick Rubin rock smash that finds Jay-Z spitting venom. In other action, the Neptunes turn in beats for "Change Clothes" and "Allure" and Timbaland's bounce fits well with Jay's swagger on "Dirt Off Your Shoulders." But the Madonna-bitten hook for "Justify My Thug," is just too much to take- even if DJ Quik's track is funkalicious. On "Moment of Clarity," Jay goes the Eminem route of somber self-reflection, which seems appropriate since Slim Shady works the boards on a boring, minor key outing. Throughout all of this, Jay exudes an intriguing mix of "why don't people love me?" brow-beating and "I'm the best ever" chest-puffing. If nothing else, Jay-Z exits the game the same way he came in: an MC of considerable gifts and considerable complexity. As he crows on "December 4," "If you can't respect that/your whole perspective is wack." 14 tracks.
- music label: Roc-A-Fella