64.) Jay-Z - The Black Album (2003)

The Black Album
was, famously, supposed to be Jay-Z's last record. His retirement record. Regardless, there wasn't much fear from Hova's fans that this would actually be it - meaning we didn't feel like we were going to be hearing Jay's last record...until we heard it.

I'm not saying Jay fooled us - he didn't - but what he did do was a craft a record that felt like a swan song and had he actually hung it up, it would have been a high note to go out on. He would have, effectively, quit while he was ahead.

But, of course the Jay-Z retirement was like many retirements before it - all hype and Jay has since returned with records both triumphant (American Gangster) and disappointing (Kingdom Come), but The Black Album was the last time that Jay put together something completely and totally brilliant. In 2003 Jay was the best rapper alive. Bar none. No arguments.

Only Jay could open a record with his mother speaking about how he was the only one of her children to not give her any pain, which made her know that he was "a special child." It's so self-important and bragadocious and in any other hands it would have been as eye-rolly as possible, but here it works. I still can't explain why, but it does. "Encore", "Change Clothes", "Dirt Off Your Shoulder", "99 Problems", "PSA", "What More Can I Say"- all classics. All indelible, unforgettable moments on a record filled with them.

My favorite Jay-Z song happens to be The Black Album's "Threat." It just feels truer than anything else. It's spare, relying on the beat and a single piano loop and puts the spotlight on Jay the storyteller. It's a song about a famous guy who has it all, but still - even then - he's got to be on his toes. It's as paranoid a hip hop track as has ever been recorded thrown smack dab in the middle of an otherwise triumphant victory lap. It's a weird, but ultimately bold choice that sums up the artist - wonderfully complicated

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