The song that has always enchanted me on The Black Album is the last song, which is called "My 1st Song," which is meant to be the last song of Jay-Z's career. Got that? It is a beautiful, bedeviling denouement; Jay has rarely rapped better, more intricately, and with such purpose. It's because he knew exactly what he was meant to be doing: Saying goodbye. "Goodbye, this is my second major breakup/ My first was, with a pager/ With a hooptie, a cookpot, and the game/ This one's with the stool, with the stage, with the fortune/ Maybe not the fortune, but certainly the fame."
Knowing what we know now — Jay-Z would be back to full-time recording artist status in three years — makes examining the self-flagellation of The Black Album something of a fool's errand. Elizabeth Mendez Berry wrote for The Village Voice that he'd become "bored by the alter ego he'd outgrown." So how seriously do we take the musings on a half-hearted retirement? Well, maybe without that specter hanging, we can hear it for the achievement it is: a great Jay-Z album.
Originally conceived as a single-producer venture in 1998 with DJ Premier, The Black Album wouldn't come together until years later. It was later advertised with a one-producer, one-song plan, which also never panned out. Finally, it became a typical sort of Jay-Z project, featuring contributions from trusted collaborators, in-house Roc-A-Fella super-producers, Kanye West and Just Blaze, sensing the moment as much as Jay, and crucial additions from a murderer's row of sound men (Timbaland, Eminem, DJ Quik, The Neptunes twice, Rick Rubin, out of rap retirement for a spell) and a handful of then-unknowns and never-heard-from-agains (9th Wonder, The Buchanans, Aqua). Together, there are canonical songs: "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)," initially just a tossed-off one verse proclamation of pride that became a defining document for the MC, with lyrics — from "got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain" to "like Che Guevara with bling on, I'm complex" — that became rallying cries. Rubin's stomping "99 Problems" still sounds like a tank full of cowbells taking a 40-foot drop onto the pavement. Kanye's "Encore" is a convivial farewell song, though it comes early in the mix. Eminem's "Moment of Clarity" is tightly wound, but never tight-lipped, as Jay raps, "I've dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars/ They criticize me for it yet they all yell holler." Even "Threat," the then-ascendant 9th Wonder's contribution, returns Jay to the creeping majesty of his debut, Reasonable Doubt.. And what would a pro forma Jay-Z album be without a Neptunes trifle? At the time of release, "Change Clothes" seemed a grievous error, a cold calculating move designed to ensure record sales. So many years on, it is what it was supposed to be: a palate cleanser.
"My 1st Song" still kills me. It's that "maybe not the fortune" line. Jay-Z has long been a dramatist, a self-styled orchestrator of his own mythology. And nothing could be more grand than a ceremonial retirement. Except, maybe, for the even grander comeback. But then, there is one more Easter egg worth parsing on The Black Album. From "Encore": "When I come back like Jordan, wearin' the 4-5/ It ain't to play games with you/ It's to aim at you, probably maim you." Considering said comeback, he was more right than he knew.