The Last Hustle

Jay-Z Leaves Hip-Hop With Something to Remember Him By—The Black Album, With Matching Sneakers

Jay-Z's friend Notorious B.I.G.—who was able to balance his street persona with pop success, and whose posthumous Life After Death earned 10 platinum plaques—provided the template, not to mention the producer. Jay uses Vol. 1 to pay homage to B.I.G. while claiming his recently deceased friend's King of New York crown. Jay-Z may also have been inspired by the third member of the holy trinity of rap he anoints on the razor-sharp Vol. 1 track "Where I'm From": Nas. Nas's debut, 1994's Illmatic, was a cognoscenti record that sold gold. Right after Reasonable Doubtcame out in June of 1996, Nas released It Was Written, which made concessions to commercial radio, notably via the single "Street Dreams." It Was Writtenwas certified double platinum in two months, just as Reasonable Doubt was certified gold. Since then, none of Jay-Z's albums has sold less than platinum. But though he'd prioritized his cash flow, Jay-Z didn't put all his Easter eggs in that basket. Throughout his career, he has often enlivened the radio with cunningly addictive tracks like 2000's "I Just Wanna Love U." And even when his music is mediocre, there's a line or two hidden in there for the close listeners—and maybe for him too. One gets the sense that he's trying to keep himself amused.

In 1998, shortly after the release of the mega-selling Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life, Jay wanted to make an album for his original audience. "I'll never forget that day," said DJ Premier, who has collaborated with Jay-Z since he was down with Big Daddy Kane. "The phone rang, and it was Jay—at that time we had each other's numbers," recalled Premier. "He said, 'I want to do this thing called the Black Album. I want to take a good two or three weeks and just lock in with you, you do nothing but this album. I want you to produce the entire thing. I'm not gonna do no singles. I'm not gonna do nothing, just throw it out.' I was down, and then there was talk of a Black Album in the street, but it never happened."

Five years later, Jay-Z has released a very different Black Album—one that doesn't include any production from Primo—but he still feels constrained by fame. "We as artists are faced with keeping it real and going back to the 'hood and making the hardcore record, so we don't get criticized like 'Aw, he fell off,' " he said. "Whenever a person tries to go and do different things, they condemn it as a sellout attempt. Myself included, we can't be afraid to grow. What's the point if we can't talk about the things we've seen?" Andre 3000's album is one of his favorites right now: " 'Y'all don't hear me, y'all just wanna dance.' I can relate to that. He wants to be totally honest, he wants to tell the truth, but 'Y'all just wanna dance.' I know what he feeling right there."

That frustration shows on The Black Album. Though Jay-Z never steps out of character—he does the dancefloor ditty, the narco-nostalgia, the ego trip—he no longer seems entirely comfortable playing his role. When during a listening session, he played the track "99 Problems" for a group of journalists, he took great pains to explain that the word bitch as used in the song doesn't refer to women, and therefore isn't misogynistic. Either he thought we were a very gullible bunch or he felt conflicted about his use of the term, embarrassed even. I doubt he offered any such disclaimer when he played "Can I Get a . . . " back in 1998. Later on, when I asked him about the fluffy phoned-in Neptunes single "Change Clothes," he said, "It's not degrading at all," as if that justified its existence.

Having come clean about his crowd-pleasing career path on the new album, Jay-Z claimed in person that he was trying to recapture the uncompromising rhyme style of Reasonable Doubt. "I stopped dumbing down more than ever," he said. Maybe, but Jay-Z has sold his character so well that he seems afraid to swap it for a newer model. Said Kanye West, "I think Jay probably does want to rap about more honest stuff, but that's not what he came into the game to rap about." He fulfills his audience's expectations for quick-fix singles like "Change Clothes." And he still plays the intelligent gangster who, like the Eskimos, has a hundred words for snow—when he said, "I'm running on fumes" during the brief Q&A after the listening session, he could have been referring to the long dissipated crack smoke that he still conjures in rhyme. According to Kanye West, "Jay wanted to take it back to before he was in the industry, to the drug game, to make it like how Reasonable Doubt was." But back then, Jay-Z's life and his recording persona coincided; he had barely retired from street life. That's no longer true, which may be why, though he offers the finessed violence of old on "Threat," Jay-Z adds an unmistakable wink to the track. He doesn't carry a gun anymore.

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