Shall he return?

Jay-Z bows out of the rap game with album that defends his career choices.

Tom Horgen

Jay-Z has released eight solo albums in eight years. “The Black Album” is supposedly his last, his final contribution to hip-hop. But many people speculate that this early retirement is just a ploy to sell more records. They’re probably right. But if this isn’t his last, it sure sounds like it.

“The Black Album” is elegiac, reflective and like a handwritten, cursive letter. A grand finale. We finally meet the mother he sold crack to (she’s on one song – the album’s only guest spot). He brings Rick Rubin – the architect behind Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J’s first albums, – back to hip-hop. The legendary producer, an expatriate residing in the world of rock, has been producing for Johnny Cash and System of a Down for the last couple years. And for the album’s closer, Jay returns to the machine gun delivery he messed with in the mid-’90s – having now mastered it.

But beyond these brief flirtations with nostalgia, Jay seems most adamant about using “The Black Album” to clear up any misconceptions people might have of him. It appears he’s been coming to terms with that one criticism that has plagued his entire career. After the poor sales of “Reasonable Doubt,” his grim, intricately written debut classic, he made a few changes in his approach. He slowed his delivery down, foregrounding the beats, and with each subsequent album he would include at least two or three songs written specifically for the radio. He strived for success. But success meant consciously forgoing artistic integrity. He tried defending this decision on the last album: “They only know what the single is and singled that out to be the meaning of what he’s about/But no dummy, that’s the shit I’m sprinklin’ the album with to keep the registers ringin.’ “

He flushes this explanation out on “The Black Album” and does so in a much more revealing way. On the aptly titled “Moment of Clarity,” he laments: “I dumb down for my audience, double my dollars/they criticize me for it, yet they all yell ‘holla!’/if skill sold, truth be told/I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully, I really wanna rhyme like Common Sense/but I did five mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.”

The five million copies he sold of 1999’s “Vol. 2 Ö Hard Knock Life” indeed solidified, for Jay, what the listener wanted to hear. And if that meant making songs that didn’t contain the type of pensive lyrics that an MC such as Talib Kweli or Common encompassed, that’s what Jay was just gonna have to do.

But Jay contends he wasn’t staying the course just to buy more diamonds. Nope, he finishes the previous rap with: “We as rappers must decide what’s most important/and I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them so I got rich and gave back/to me that’s the win-win.”

Let’s not get it twisted; Biggie Smalls wasn’t just rhyming words when he said “Living in the ghetto is a sure shot/you’re either slangin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”

Sometimes we forget that hip-hop isn’t just about expressing yourself and keeping it artistically real. This culture came out of urban poverty. When it became lucrative in the 1980s, rap also became an avenue of survival that didn’t have to do with drugs or basketball. Instead of making cerebral, less accessible music that would never have gone platinum, Jay decided to go platinum by any means necessary and make the money he needed to give back. Isn’t that hip-hop?

The funny thing is, even dumbed down, Jay’s lyrics have always been clever, expressive and sometimes powerful. But in preparation for this album, it’s obvious he took a look back at his career and decided he didn’t want people to remember him just for his radio hits. This would explain all the explaining he does throughout this album.

But one thing he doesn’t really explain is why he’s quitting. Yeah, word is he wants to try acting or something, but come on. We know it really has to do with his obsession to be acknowledged as the best. Peep the line, “If you can’t respect that your whole perspective is wack/maybe you’ll love me when I fade to black,” which Jay repeats five times. He knows he’s a more complete MC than either Biggie or Tupac, but he’s never received the unconditional love the two fallen icons have demanded. So as their deaths immortalized them, Jay has ended his career in hopes that an earlier exit, while he’s at the peak of his powers, will force people to accept his greatness.

In a career filled with calculated maneuvering, we’ll see if Jay’s scheme works out. If not, he’ll just have to come back and drop another classic.