NEW YORK — Even fans jaded by the precipitous talk of rapper retirements speak about Jay-Z’s impending swan song with a touch of sentimentality. They’ve felt the passion coursing through Hova’s rhymes since the days of Reasonable Doubt and they know that when he says he’s tired of the game right now, he means it.
Jay unveiled The Black Album during a private listening session Wednesday at Baseline Studios. He sat quietly with pen and paper, going over production credits, song titles and shout-outs while a room full of hungry media types listened intently. The early verdict is that The Black Album will be everything Jay-Z wants it to be — a defining moment in his career. But that’s as much because of the music as it is the hype. The album is to be released on the nontraditional date of November 28, the Friday after Thanksgiving, in conjunction with the black version of his signature Reebok shoe, the S. Carter Collection.
Jay is keeping The Black Album efficient: 12 songs, a handful of producers, no guest rap cameos and, aside from an intro track, no skits to interrupt the rhythm of his rhymes. As reported earlier, the first single from The Black Album is “Change Clothes,” produced by the Neptunes and featuring Pharrell singing the hook (see “Jay-Z To Change His ‘Clothes’ For Black Album?” ). With a bubbly beat pushing Jay’s voice, the track is an up-tempo celebration of hitting the town for the night. The Neptunes make their mark with their signature rhythmic pop-and-synthesized keyboard swells.
While Jay didn’t recruit any collaborators for the album, one big name lends his talents behind the boards: Eminem. Slim Shady produced “Moment of Clarity,” lending the faintest of vocals to the song’s chorus. Em’s hard-hitting, minor-key soundtrack frames a Jay-Z confessional — from his feelings on his father to an explanation of why he chose certain paths in his career.
One high profile person who didn’t make the album is Madonna. Madonna’s cooing pillow-talk on “Justify My Love” is sampled on “Justify My Thug” over a sultry, electro-funk track produced by DJ Quik. Jay explained that Madonna herself was to do the vocals live in the studio, but that he needed to have the album finished by last Friday and she was only available the following Monday. “I’m really late with this already,” he said, “I couldn’t wait. It’s serious.”
Other producers on the album include Kanye West (“Encore,” “Lucifer”), Timbaland, newcomers the Bucannons, and 9th Wonder from the North Carolina hip-hop group Little Brother. “He’s incredible,” Jay said. “In two years, everyone’s going to know his name.”
One other producer helmed the beats for Hov: the legendary Rick Rubin. On “99 Problems,” Rubin rigged an old-school rock break that he shuffles back and forth like it was 1982 all over again.
Jay has said he wants The Black Album to capture the spirit and hunger of his early days, before he became a household name. The opening cut, produced by Just Blaze, is titled “December 4,” Jay’s birthday, and it starts with Jay’s birth (10 pounds, 8 ounces, in case you were wondering), and goes through certain experiences in his youth that shaped his early sensibilities — like getting hurt on his bike at the age of 4 and his parents’ divorce. The surprise guest on the song: his mother, whose voice is heard in the background of the chorus.
Keeping on the pre-Reasonable Doubt timeline, Jay ends The Black Album with “My First Song,” produced by newcomer Aqua, using the title to tie a loop between the story’s end and his beginning as an artist — the beginning of his fame to the supposed end of his career.
To hear a preview of The Black Album, check out The Leak beginning November 24.