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New Release - Jay-z - 11/27/03


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Hip-Hop Review: Jay-Z Raps on the Fly Like a Man Set to Die

November 27, 2003


Tupac Shakur was shot to death in 1996, but it didn't much

hurt his career: he is revered now more than ever, lionized

in the new documentary "Resurrection." The Notorious B.I.G.

was killed in 1997, but no hip-hop club night or radio show

is complete without one of his songs. And 50 Cent reminds

everyone how he cheated death: an assassination attempt

left him with an appealingly slurred voice and a great back


Compared with hip-hop heroes like these, Jay-Z has a

significant handicap: he's alive and well. He is also one

of the shrewdest rappers of all time and one of the most

creative, so he found a clever way to overcome this

liability: he decided to stage his own death, or at least


Jay-Z has been threatening to retire for years, and this

month he released "The Black Album" (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def

Jam) as his last will and testament, or so he claims. And

at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night he said goodbye

with an extraordinary concert that was both moving and

festive: a memorial service disguised as a block party.

Jay-Z's rapping served as a homily, which was interrupted

by secular (and often sexual) hymns from R. Kelly and Mary

J. Blige, as well as Beyoncé, whose relationship with Jay-Z

seems to go well beyond duets. Each of the three performed

a brief set, but the wound-up crowd was really satisfied

only when Jay-Z was onstage.

He did some songs with a sharp backing band (anchored by

the Roots' drummer Questlove) and others with a D.J. Either

way, Jay-Z's delivery was typically sharp, and except for

one glitch (the speakers cut out for most of "Frontin'," a

duet with Pharrell Williams from the Neptunes), this was

about as smooth and as strong a hip-hop concert as anyone

has ever managed.

The party started with a Garden-variety tribute: a

basketball jersey bearing Jay-Z's number (1 of course) was

raised to the rafters. And then, for more than two and a

half hours, Jay-Z delivered his own homily, ripping through

dozens of tracks from his relatively brief but

astonishingly productive career.

In verses from his first album, "Reasonable Doubt," from

1996, Jay-Z came across as a jaded hustler, world-weary

from the start. During "Dead Presidents II," he vowed to

avenge a friend's death, clear-eyed and unapologetic:

"Murder is a tough thing to digest/It's a slow process/And

I ain't got nothing but time."

Much of Jay-Z's music has been tinged with nostalgia for

these early years. And in "Hovi Baby," from last year, he

delivered a couplet that sounded like an epitaph: "Seven

straight summers, critics might not admit it/But nobody in

rap did it quite like I did it."

"The Black Album" was meant to be a career capstone, but

it's a disappointment: a bit short on wit and agility and a

bit long on solemnity and speechifying. Still, the new

songs sounded great on Tuesday, in part because they were

interspersed with more buoyant singles from previous

albums. One of the best "Black Album" tracks is "Dirt Off

Your Shoulder," with a synthetic beat by Timbaland that

seems to play backward. He allowed himself a smile as he

rhymed, "You gotta pardon Jay/For selling out the Garden in

a day."

Nearly every rap concert these days includes a tribute to

the dead: not just Shakur and B.I.G. but Jam Master Jay,

Lisa Lopes, Big Pun, Aaliyah and others. Jay-Z went one

step further, bringing out Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur,

and B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace, both of whom were

presented with checks for the foundations that they run in

memory of their sons.

But the night ended with the loved one all alone,

performing "December 4th," which lays out a mythified

version of his life, from birth to drug-dealing to rapping.

The song - and the concert - finished with a defiant (but

also beseeching) final couplet: "If you can't respect that,

your whole perspective is wack/Maybe you'll love me when I

fade to black."

With that, the stage darkened and Jay-Z disappeared; as

exhausted fans filed out, some of them seemed as if they

missed their hero already. Jay-Z should enjoy his

retirement; he's certainly earned it. He claims to be "in

heavy, heavy negotiations" to move the New Jersey Nets to

Brooklyn. But let's hope basketball doesn't monopolize too

much of his afterlife. After all, he has a resurrection to



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Pitchfork's Review:


The Black Album

[Rocafella; 2003]

Rating: 8.0

01 Intro [w. Ryan Schreiber]

For Shawn Carter, the last seven years have been ridiculous. In 1996, he came up from an impoverished childhood in New York's Marcy projects to record a debut that would eventually come to be considered one of hip-hop's landmark albums, and spent the succeeding six years dominating Billboard charts, filling the East Coast void left by Biggie's death, and building a hip-hop empire to rival Puffy's Bad Boy Entertainment. In that time, he's seen as many failures as successes-- critics panned him for selling out after the critical reverence of Reasonable Doubt, La Roc Familia was a disaster from any angle, and, by Jay's standards, last year's The Blueprint 2 couldn't even claim to be a commercial success. Still, he's come out on top time and again: Today, he's reclaimed the title as hip-hop's reigning emcee, and his Rocafella record label, clothing line, and film company together are said to be valued at more than $4.4 billion.

So why would he want out now, at the peak of his popularity? The Black Album, touted as his final release, offers some answers, though none as clear-cut as what may or may not be the truth: that it's all an elaborate publicity stunt. Or maybe it's not: Jay has cut an album every year for the past seven years; that he'd want a break of some sort now is understandable. Certain lyrics hint that this isn't the last record he'll cut, but if that's true, will his game still be as tight when gets around to the comeback? It's anyone's guess, and that mystery is part of what makes this album such an intriguing listen.

The prospect of hip-hop's finest producers laying down tracks for the final LP from the rap world's brightest talent has made The Black Album one of the most anticipated rap records of the decade. What's stunning is that it delivers rap's greatest career-ender since Outkast's Stankonia. Even in falling short of Jay's classics, Reasonable Doubt and 2001's The Blueprint, it manages to eclipse 1999's brilliant Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter as his third-best album-- which in itself makes it one of the year's best.

In light of the hype this record's received for its choice of beatmakers, we egomaniacally matched the personalities of our staff writers to Jay's producers. (However, we regret that we could not take the concept to its logical extreme and cease operations after publishing it.)

-The Pitchfork Staff, November 17th, 2003

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