Sean Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, is now involved with many things involving many people -- his own Roc-A-Fella film company, his Roc-A-Fella record company, his private sneaker line through Reebok, his Armadale vodka company, his personal Roc-A-Fella staff, including regular gold- and platinum-selling artists like Beanie Sigel and Cam'Ron -- all only a portion of the power he has come to represent. He seems now to also be the embodiment of the fully emancipated black male, perhaps the only black male in America who can do anything he wants, because he has the dough and the pimp juice to do it. In an age when the young are building financial empires en masse -- finding less and less to protest, picket or demand change over -- Jay-Z is a phenomenon, one of the few post-Black Power Movement products to withstand the test of time.
But here in the final year of his rap career, in the season of The Black Album, his 11th and supposedly last album, it seems that as hot as he's been, Jay-Z has caught a cold.
He's run out of stuff to talk about, rappers to assault, and passages from the Dead Rappers' Society canon to exploit, and is so self-conscious about it that he alludes to this creative aloofness on almost every song on The Black Album. Rap is no longer challenging to him now.
That's a sad shame, because the man who has it all and can no longer find new ground to tread is perhaps a victim of self-defeat: There's plenty of territory for him to manifest destiny upon; Jay-Z is just too scared to explore it. In interviews since his five-million-selling Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z has constantly threatened to take the socially conscious route in his music. Six albums later he hasn't delivered.
Socially conscious to Jay-Z is him on "Public Service Announcement," rapping, "I'm like Che Guevara with bling on ..." It's probably the most asinine statement ever made in hip hop. No one who knows who Guevara was could conjure the Cuban revolutionary wearing diamond necklaces any more than the reference is going to enlighten someone who doesn't know who Guevara was.
The second song on Black Album asks his fans, "What More Can I Say?" Well, let's look at what you've said, Jay-Z: All of it can be summed up in the title of one best-selling single, "Money, Cash, Hoes."
To be fair, Jay-Z never proclaimed to be Al Sharpton, though he has proclaimed himself God, even assuming the name J-Hova. But to sell us on this retirement stunt and say there's no more hip-hop frontier just sounds like a cop-out. There's plenty to say, he's just afraid to say it.
Jay-Z fanatics will say Yo, he talked about other shit. OK, there was "Anything," whining about his mom; "Where Have You Been?" whining about his dad; and "Song Cry," whining about girlfriends he's lost. On The Black Album, "December 4th" provides a nice Jigga autobiography, and "99 Problems" talks of getting pulled over by overzealous police. Other songs like the soulful "Lucifer," the rambling "Allure," and the pulsating "Justify My Thug" all do the only thing Jay-Z seems able to accomplish with The Black Album -- and his rap career, for that matter: justify his thug.
In the Eminem-produced "Moment of Clarity" Jay-Z gives his most revelatory and honest appraisal of his own mindwork: "If skills sold / truth be told / I'd probably be / lyrically, Talib Kweli / truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / but I sold 5 mil / so I ain't been rhymin' like Common since." Sounds like this J-Hova is an insecure God. He's sold some 20 million records, but can't find the courage to do one song that's not about thuggin', hustlin' or pimpin' (or the effects of a dysfunctional family and society that rationalizes his thuggin', hustlin' and pimpin'). Meanwhile, "conscious" rappers like Talib Kweli and Common do it regularly, and all their albums together wouldn't amount to the sales of one mediocre Jay-Z's album.
Well, that's the point: It's the money, stupid. But if Jay-Z didn't care about putting out more responsible material, then why apologize for it in his "moment of clarity"? Why call it The Black Album, and then deliver The Crack Album?
If you have nothing left to prove and the money and empires to show for it, why deliver arguably your most true-to-formula record? The Black Album serves up the standard radio-friendly Neptunes songs, backpacker-friendly Kanye West-produced songs, a white-boy-friendly Eminem-produced song (with Rick Rubin-produced song to boot), and West Coast-friendly DJ Quik-produced song. All that's missing is the dirty South-friendly song featuring Lil' Jon, but Jay-Z lacks the personality to carry that kind of track -- one could argue that's terrain he's yet to explore, further debunking his theory.
Chances are this is not Jay-Z's last album. He's left too much to be desired, and sonically it reflects every other album he's put out. If anything, it represents the end of the Roc-A-Fella era: After its Chicago Bulls-esque run on the industry, the label is looking fragmented. That symbolically places Black Album kinda where The Beatles "White Album" is, but only because when they produced that opus the band members were all headed down different paths themselves. But amidst that disarray, The Beatles were still able to put out excellent music that elevated their place among artists, whereas with his Black Album Jay-Z seems to have neither elevated nor dropped in his place.
Rap fans will still think he's one of the hottest, but 20 years from now, after three more "retirements," they'll look back on The Black Album and think that this is where Jay-Z had a cold.