Jay-Z's "The Black Album" turns 20 and is more relevant than ever

As hip-hop ages, Jay-Z's music continues to be timeless

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 3, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Jay-Z during Jay-Z "The Black Album Tour" Live at Madison Square Garden - Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, United States. 2003. (KMazur/WireImage for New York Post)
Jay-Z during Jay-Z "The Black Album Tour" Live at Madison Square Garden - Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, United States. 2003. (KMazur/WireImage for New York Post)

Jay-Z's eighth studio album "The Black Album," turns 20 this year, which makes me feel like looking at retirement brochures because who knows where the time goes? 

I was 23 when the album dropped, with a waist and a healthy hairline and a ridiculous amount of optimism. 

"The Black Album," which was heavily promoted and marketed as Jay Z's last album was everything that 23-year-old me needed and the most consumed piece of art in my life three months before it dropped – all the way up till "Kingdom Come" in 2006, after he abruptly ended his rapping hiatus. How did I the play the album months before it came out? 

Well, I wasn't connected or in the industry. It was a glorious time when the word streaming had nothing to do with music or TV shows. We didn't get albums from Tidal or Spotify, nope – to hear the latest everything, you had to go to the bootleg man. Every neighborhood had one, normally a toothpick-chewing dude in dark shades who drives a Honda Accord with non-factory rims and tinted windows. His merchandise is always stored in the trunk, under other items for sale like leather jackets and phony Chanel bags,  and he always, always has to complain about the price of something going up – normally gas or child support or lunch meat – before spitting something like, "Buy four for $20, nephew, and I'll give you the fifth one free! That's a deal because these CD prices are high!" 

The bootleg man never went by "Bootleg Man." They were normally called by a nickname attached to the item that they were most known for selling – like CD Randy or Gucci Bag Gary and Burberry Belinda. Yes these are actual people. I bought "The Black Album" from Leather Rob. Avirex or Pelle Pelle or whatever kind of leather you needed, Leather Rob had it. 

If a single Jay-Z album went platinum 20 times, I was probably responsible for 2% of those sales.

Before we get into a deep conversation about stealing art, I should say that I purchased every studio Jay-Z album from Sound Garden, my favorite record shop in Baltimore, and I lost those CD's, and loaned those CD's out and didn't get them back, and repurchased them over and over again. If a single Jay-Z album went platinum 20 times, I was probably responsible for 2% of those sales. I only bought the bootleg Jay-Z, because the album wasn't out yet, and I was such a fan, that I could not wait to hear it. 

"Buy four for $20 ,nephew, and I'll throw a DVD in for free," Leather Rob said with a raised eyebrow, "Have you seen 'The Alpo Story'?" 

"I don't care about Alpo. Take the $5," I responded, probably sounding like an addict. "Give me the Jay-Z joint." 

Artists had to be really tricky at the time, so "The Black Album" that I purchased from Leather Rob, wasn't the actual version that released in November, later that year. They knew that thousands of people like Leather Rob were all over America compiling albums made-up of their leaked music. So they had to put out phony versions in an effort to make sure fans got something new and fresh on the actual release date. 

The fake version didn't bother me so much. Again, I was the biggest Jay-Z fan in the world. I wanted to hear all of the leaked music as well as the stuff he wants us to hear, and that was enough to hold me over to the actual release date. 

My friends and I are treated the unpackaging of a Jay-Z album like a spiritual ceremony.

My friends and I treated the unpackaging of a Jay-Z album like a spiritual ceremony. We purchased our copies before posting up on the curb right in front of the record shop. There we'd tear the packaging off of the CD's, read the track list, and analyze the album's artwork before breaking off to listen to the album individually. Just in case you wanted to hear the same song 30 times in a row. 

Jay-Z's music were always perfect for riding. You had to take a trip around the neighborhood up and down your blocks before venturing into someone else's neighborhood and the Beltway and maybe another city. The best thing about Jay-Z albums is that no one ever gets all of the references at once; it's always some kind of tricky metaphor or complex double entendre that you won't understand until one month or one year or a decade later. I love every track on the album, and believe that if it was released today, it would still be extremely successful. 

The song "Moment of Clarity" offers one of the easier references, that could potentially help a beginner understand the beauty in the way Jay-Z puts songs together. 

If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill' – I ain't been rhyming like Common since (Woo!)

When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustling since your inception
F**k perception! Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I'm up against
We as rappers must decide what's most important
And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win-win

In this stanza Jay-Z talks about his commitment to lyricism and how, at how he would opt out of mainstream to be that lyrically respected backpack rapper like Talib Kweli or actor Common who's rap name back in the day was Common Sense. But Jay-Z sold 5 million records, and hasn't been rhyming like "Common," since. Get it? He then ties it to the greater mission of creating for his community by honestly saying he cannot help the poor if he's not making money, and for him that's wins all the way around. 

My favorite track from the album is still "What More Can I Say." It's the second song on the album, and Jay really gets into his bag, giving himself his flowers at a time when the industry was acting like he wasn't the best to ever touch a microphone: 

With so many different flows
This one's for this song
The next one I'll switch up
This one will get bit up
These f**ks
To lazy to make up s**t
They crazy
They don't paint pictures
They just trace me
You know what
Soon they forget who they plucked
They whole style from
And try to reverse the outcome
I'm like, cluck
I'm not a biter
I'm a writer
For myself and others
I say a B.I.G. verse I'm only biggin' up my brother

In the verse he addresses the foolish people who say that he got his style from the late great Notorious B.I.G. While they were great friends who collaborated on some of the best songs in hip-hop history, you can clearly see the differences in their styles and approach. Jay has put some of Biggie's lines in his music, not because he didn't have anything to say himself, but to keep his late friend alive. In the tangled stanza he creatively plays with clucked and plucked and how other rappers don't paint pictures, they just trace them. 

Parts of the song get extremely cold, and the artist apologizes at the end:

God forgive me for my brash delivery
But I remember vividly
What these streets did to me
So picture me
Letting these clowns nit pick at me
Paint me like a pickanniny

This was one of the bars that screamed directly at me, as I also vividly remember what the streets did to me­­; pain, addiction, suicide and mass murder felt like the foundation of my neighborhood. Jay-Z represented what it looked like and meant to make it out of these kinds of spaces, but at the same time he explained and questioned how or why should he or we get the opportunity to be seen and respected and loved with all of the madness in our past and entrenched into our realities.

I didn't get the pickanniny line until years later, when I learned about the Jim Crow South, the racist ideas, in combination with the racist imagery used to dehumanize Black people and define the Black experience. The artist was saying that he won't be treated like a clown or painted to be one. He took a hard stance on the idea of ownership, being your own boss and setting up the rules that you choose to live by, and he continues to follow those rules until this very day.

All ideas that are relevant now, more than ever. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Commentary Hip-hop Jay-z Music The Black Album