If The Black Album is Jay-Z's last, as he publicly stated it will be, it illustrates an artist going out in top form. For years Shawn Carter has been the best rapper "and" the most popular, a man who can strut the player lifestyle with one track and become the eloquent hip-hop everyman with the next, an artist for whom modesty is often a sin, and yet, one who still sounds sincere when he's discussing his humble origins or his recurring doubts. After the immediate classic The Blueprint found him at the peak of his powers, and The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse came as the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I, his follow-up (and possible siren song) impresses on the same level as the best of his career. As he has in the past, Jay-Z balances the boasting with extensive meditations on his life and his career. The back history begins with the first song, "December 4" (his birthday), on which Carter traces his life from birth day to present day, riding a mock fanfare and the heart-tugging strings of producer Just Blaze, along with frequent remembrances from his mother in This Is Your Life fashion. The other top track, "What More Can I Say," opens with Russell Crowe's defiant "Are you not entertained!?" speech from Gladiator, then finds Jay-Z capping his career with another proof that he's one of the best of all time, and a look into what made him that way: "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me." He also goes out with a few words for underground fans who think he's sold too many records for his own good. On "Moment of Clarity," he lays it out with an excellent rhyme: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since." The first single, "Change Clothes," is much more interesting than the lightweight club hit it sounds like, a keyboard-heavy pop sequel to the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (the anthem that rocked the summer of 2003, and his last collaboration with professional beat-maker and amateurish falsetto Pharrell Williams). And he can rock with the best as well, working with Rick Rubin on a cowbell-heavy stormer named "99 Problems" that samples Billy Squier and outrocks Kid Rock. The only issue that's puzzling about The Black Album is why one of the best rappers needs to say goodbye -- unless, of course, he's simply afraid of being taken for granted and wants listeners to imagine a rap world without him.
John Bush, Rovi