The Black Album (Def Jam)

Jay-Z 

The Black Album (Def Jam)

Announced in a whirlwind of publicity as Jay-Z's "retirement" disc, The Black Album was already a legend prior to its release. Like Prince's Black Album, it had achieved prominence in music-trading circles long before it hit retail shelves. Said to be a prequel to his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, Jigga's alleged swan song doesn't deliver the promised rootsy return to yesteryear, but it does rank among the stronger efforts in his armory of platinum wall-bangers. On "Public Service Announcement," Jay fires off a litany of clever turns of phrase that cement his reputation as a top-notch wordsmith -- a clarification that's not necessary at this point. "December 4th" provides a dazzling Shawn Carter autobiography set to music, complete with fond memories from his mom. Because it's a Jay-Z album, one can expect a trunkful of red-hot beats from rap's most prominent names (the Neptunes, Eminem). Outstanding cuts include "Problems," which Rick Rubin spices with shards of metallic guitar that push the boundaries of the usual rap-rock paradigm, and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," a Timbaland dance-floor call to arms that's equal parts prank and swank. Jay-Z needed a rock-solid comeback, and The Black Album comes pretty close to the mark. But as with Michael Jordan, Kiss and the Who, one has to wonder if Jigga's retirement is the real deal or if he'll decide that he's too legit to quit just yet.

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