Releasing his debut classic Reasonable Doubt in 1996, Jay-Z came along when the hip-hop world saw the untimely exits of two of its best. Seven years and just as many proper albums later, he’s leaving the same world as one of the best and most popular. He’s able to successfully toggle between street thug and blinged-out superstar without sounding tacky, and his inherent brashness and lyrical fluidity put him in a class that few inhabit.
If The Black Album really is the Jigga’s last breath in the rap world, as is rumored, it’s one that sees him going out at the height of his powers. The first single, “Change Clothes,” brings in the familiar falsetto of Pharrell Williams for an infectious dance number that one-ups last summer’s “Frontin’ ” (another Neptunes/Jay-Z collab).
On “Moment of Clarity,” a frequently introspective Jay-Z puts himself up against the light in an increasingly talented rap world. He puts it down cogently: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli / Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mikes, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.”
Jay works with Rick Rubin on the catchy-as-fuck “99 Problems.” This track, which features a Billy Squier sample (wtf??), comes off brilliantly, but these are the things we have come to expect from the Jigga. The album closes with the swaggering “My 1st Song,” which sees a happy-go-lucky Jay shouting out to some of the many people he holds near and dear. His referential fashion indicates not only his confidence in his own skills, but also his appreciation for everyone else out there.
Jay-Z’s career has always been about spreading his gift and love of being an emcee to the masses. He has simultaneously remembered where he came from and appreciated the riches that came his way in a manner that few in the commercial world have done before. His exit might be upsetting to some, but Jay has other fish to fry. He is a trailblazer blazing yet another trail.