Tuesday, 23 November 2010



Quite frankly I am surprised that I actually bought this album.  Jay-Z maybe the biggest hip-hop artist in the world but that is never a guaranteed seal of approval, just a mark of much exposure.

A white guy reviews hip-hop.

In music history there have been three black albums: Spinal Tap, Metallica and this one.  Spot the odd one out and why.

Generally Jay-Z is an artist that has passed me by.  As I hint above, he has tended to strike me as being something of a mainstream commodity, a performer more rich in product than talent or material.  That’s the problem with first impressions you never get to make them again.  So, despite the pop is he any good?  He’s certainly radio friendly.

The Black Album is/was his eighth studio offering.  It was also his “retirement” record.  How the fuck did he put eight records out without making a dent on my consciousness?  Longevity is a rare thing in hip-hop.  Material is regularly milked but rarely do artists make it into double figures on albums.  What am I missing in this guy?  His fame crept up on me.  I thought he was painfully average when actually he is/was huge.

Jay-Z is music that actually sounds good played through a set of tinny mobile phone speakers.  Maybe that’s the secret.

In a moment of clarity I must concede that the popularity of Jay-Z confuses me.  His voice is funny but his rhymes and flow are good.  On a surface/superficial level he should not endear.  It would appear that I bought this CD as part of a 3 for £20 offer at Virgin Megastore.  I have no recollection of the transaction or what else I bought on the day.

Sometimes he sounds like a tranny.  And what’s the protracted cough about?

It begins with an “Interlude”.  What the fuck is this?  There is no interlude in thug life.

The sticker attached to the product states that “Change Clothes” and “What More Can I Say” are the heavy hits on board.  The former, a song about the importance of getting dressed, is plagued by a cheesy hook and the latter by a cheesy tag and Gladiator sample.  Lets start again.

Jay-Z came from the projects.  A boy like me could never understand how he lived, what he saw.  He speaks about struggles in a manner with which others do not.  In his mind hip-hop is the blues.  And this is why he’s friends with Chris Martin?  For the record Martin has said his favourite track on the album is “Lucifer”.  So that song must suck then.

One step forward two steps back.

On the Pete Rock remix “December 4th” was the first song to stand out for me.  With his mum (sorry, mom) offering wise words and a history lesson this is her perspective of the creation of Jay-Z.  The remix comes with a tasteful haunting accomplishment while the album version comes with a cheesy flag waving sonic backing.  This man is not subtle.  And that just might be his undoing in my mind.

Let’s chainsaw.  He laughs but I don’t read a sense of humour.

“Encore” was produced by Kanye West.  Being from an indie rock background it seems weird to me that an album houses almost a different producer on each track.  Elsewhere turning nobs and pushing buttons be The Neptunes, Timbaland, Rick Rubin and even Eminem.  Have these guys never heard of the too many cooks concept?  This was originally intended to be the first single.  Really?  It’s a song that appears to feel the need to add its own applause and worship.  It does however have amazing flow.

Apparently he achieved “it” with this record.

From some angles “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is as good as it gets.  The piping eastern flavoured sample offers a broad hook and flexes the waves of the listener’s mind.  And then the hook is Jay-Z telling his people to pick themselves up and keep plugging away.  There are more inspirational manners.

“Threat” falls into the cliché of exhibiting gunshot samples and the sound of a crazy man launching them.  This is not the Wu-Tang Clan, it does not convince.

Finally I find a truly great instant occurs with “Moment Of Clarity” as it builds with effective drive and sinister source through a layering strings mixed with majestic beats.  The grab is in the hook that rises above so much flab and debris exhibited elsewhere.  At least I see why people believe in the man.

And then with that we get to “99 Problems” and his hard hitting throwback.  Smashing a sound so distinctly old school Def Jam and Rick Rubin in many ways the track is genius.  At a time when hip-hop became so intricate in composition it lost a lot of bite and edge so with this unsubtle sledgehammer he cracked it.  It’s a sound dismantle of the climate/environment.

The second half maintains momentum with “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)”.  With a deep piano intro and speech sample it genuinely explodes with another description of his purpose.  But the front don’t fuck it up, the electric shock of the organ sample feels like lightning shot from his soul.  Good work.

“Now back to our regular scheduled programme”.

He almost had me.

The record returns to pop with “Justify My Thug” and a dumb molestation of a Madonna song.  That and a Bill Haley like rock around the clock.  This track is just a fucking whine despite his declarations that he never felt sorry for himself.  Its so easy.  Shooting dogs, killing cats – that’s not cool.  And quit with the ringtone type frequencies.

Faltering at the finish “Allure” is the sound of a silly man being sensitive and sympathetic while more gunshot samples fire in the peripheral.  Is this work really a war zone?

The Black Album concludes with “My 1st Song” and some kind of offer of assurance.  The casual guitar decorating proceedings works against the rapid rhymes of more tainted confession.  He sure loves himself, how does he fit in Beyonce?  I guess with a shout out.

Jay-Z has said that this album marked an era.

I hate how the record has its Parental Advisory sticker on the sleeve, the actual artwork instead of wearing it as a sticker on the case.  Stuck and physically sealed its owned almost as a badge of honour.  Grow up like the only people supposedly allowed/entitled to purchase the piece.

This is an album designed to sell millions and little else.  Swag.

Thesaurus moment: something.

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