Rap music of the early- to mid-1990s was quickly consumed by the fiery tempers of battling East Coast and West Coast rappers. While the mainstream media was consumed with the fight between Los Angeles-based Tupac Shakur and Brooklyn-based Notorious B.I.G, one young rapper was staying out of the debate and was making a name for himself in New York's underground clubs.
Jay-Z released his first album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, on his own Roc-A-Fella label in 1997. He came out of nowhere with flows that made people soon forget about Tupac and B.I.G. But just because Jay-Z looked more like the guy from "Hanging with Mr. Cooper" than a do-rag gangster is not to say he was just a clean-cut kid. While other rappers were busy fighting petty battles, Jay-Z was paying for his first few records with money from his successful drug-hustling days. Because he could rake in so much cash as a hustler, he eventually dubbed himself "Jay-Hova" or "Jehovah"--the Hebrew word for "God."
Known for his reputation as being the fiercest MC-Battler, Jay-Z soon realized that he didn't need hustling to pay the bills. He changed his focus from pushing drugs to recording his own nimble-tongued flows, and eventually producing other New York City rappers under the Roc-A-Fella name.
With eight albums under his belt, Jay-Z released The Black Album in November 2003, and at the same time announced his retirement from the recording industry, claiming that he's no longer inspired by the business of hip-hop. Maybe so, but the diverse songs and elaborate flows of The Black Album show that Jay-Z could very well be the best hip-hop artist in history. So maybe he's just bored because he really is too talented for the mainstream constraints of the industry.
Jay-Z has always been known for rapping a little differently. He took the charts by storm with his peculiar 1998 sampling of Annie's "It's a Hard Knock Life," but somehow he made it work. He's come a long way since then, and on The Black Album samples songs by Notorious B.I.G., Madonna's "Justify My Love" and reggae legend Max Romeo's "I Chase the Devil." While they're all incredibly unconventional picks, there isn't a track on the album that doesn't completely scream his trademark style.
Black ranges in content from farewell songs to tracks reminiscing about his hustling days.
While Jay-Z is more self-aggrandizing at times than necessary, his ninth record is his most diverse and a gorgeous farewell to the rap industry.