Since his debut in 1996, it's been hard to be a fan of music -- let alone hip-hop music -- and not have a couple of Jay-Z choruses stuck in your head. Whether it was "Ain't No Nigga," "Big Pimpin" or the ingeniously sampled hook to "Hard Knock Life," it's been nearly impossible to ignore the marketing savvy and charisma of one Sean Carter. From the gritty tales of the near-perfect Reasonable Doubt to the Evisu-clad, platinum-enveloped flow of The Dynasty, Jigga has accomplished a career's worth in a brief eight years.

Jay began speaking of his retirement shortly after the release of 2002's poorly received Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse. But unlike the perpetual retiring of Too Short or any random Geto Boy, he approached his latest effort as if it were truly his swan song. The Black Album finds a vintage Jay focusing more on the reflective thoughts of Sean Carter and less on the hedonistic rants of Jigga, a tack preferred by many who have followed his career from the beginning.

That distinction is dealt with by Jay on tracks like the explosive, instantly enjoyable "99 Problems," among the album's better cuts: "Rap critics that say he's money, cash, hoes/I'm from the hood, stupid, what kind of facts are those?" he rhymes. "If you grew up with holes in your zapper toes/You'd celebrate the minute you was having dough/I'm like fuck critics, you can kiss my whole asshole/If you don't like my lyrics you can press fast-forward." On "Moment of Clarity," by far the most lyrically earnest and revealing song here, Jay spits: "The music business hate me/'Cause the industry ain't make me/Hustlers and boosters embrace me/And the music I be makin' I dumb down for my audience/And double my dollars/They criticize me for it/Yet they all yell 'Holla.'"

Ultimately, The Black Album is no Reasonable Doubt. Still, there isn't a single wack track to be found. For Hova-nites, it's just another reason to argue that Jay-Z is the best alive. The album isn't infallible, but even its faults are by Jay's own ingenious design -- one that has seen him usher in a new a standard for emcees to aspire to. He's been the prototype for pretty much all rappers who emerged in the late '90s: detestably yet attractively arrogant, unquestionably skilled, ambitious and able to teeter between the glam of the pop world and the unfortunate truths of the streets. If indeed this is Jay's last album, it's the perfect explanation of his construction, both as an emcee and as an individual: someone to hate at times, but always to admire.


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