The week that just passed, 15 years ago, will go down in history as a watershed moment for hip-hop and the music business. The Black Album, Jay-eighth Z’s studio album, redefined the meaning of “black” (now representing beauty, soul, and prestige rather than death and decay) and catapulted him to legendary status.
Jay-Z’s ‘Black Album’
The Black Album, released on November 14, 2003, was intended to be Shawn Carter’s retirement album, a farewell to cement his drug-dealer-turned-mastermind-lyricist position and to prove that everyday hustlers can achieve their aspirations. This MC from Brooklyn raps on “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “From bricks to Billboards, from grammes to Grammys.”
Hip-hop purists and reviewers alike lauded the album at the time, leading to an instant Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album and a Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy win for the track “99 Problems.” Financially, it was the best-selling album for two weeks straight on the Billboard 200 chart. Rolling Stone included it on their “500 Greatest List of All Time,” and Complex included it on their “25 Rap Albums From the Past Decade That Deserve Classic Status” during the past decade and a half.
Jay-Z was the first rap artist to be admitted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017, thanks in large part to The Black Album and its enduring impact on modern hip-hop performers. This is our “Public Service Announcement,” in a way, to bring to your attention one of the seminal hip-hop albums of our generation.
In an era when hip-hop was trying to break into the mainstream in the United States, Jay-clever Z’s wordplay helped the music break through. For instance, take the phrase “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (listen above). With help from Timbaland’s infectious, head-bopping beat, Hov made it cool to seize the spotlight and deliver a short statement to critics: “You’re now tuned in to the muh’fuckin greatest,” he raps in the opening line.
Violence, Sex, Drugs, and the Fight
The widespread belief at the time was that hip-hop only glorified the glorification of violence, sex, drugs, and the fight. Jay-Z was crucial in shaping the genre’s reputation because he wrote songs that encouraged listeners to work on themselves lyrically. Jay-Z raps, “All the rappers be hatin’ off the music that I’m makin’.” “To the contrary, the hustlers like it when one of us finally breaks through. Originating at rock bottom and ascending to the top of the charts.”
Men and women equally learned confidence-boosting tips from the choir. Obama brushed the mud from his shoulders to respond to his detractors in a 2008 campaign speech, quoting directly from the song’s lyrics. The sexual connotation of the word “pimping” was replaced with a new meaning in the song.
The Neptunes produced lead song “Change Clothes” (stream it down below) showed a sexier, trendier side of Jay-Z. The song is an upbeat ode to dressing one’s best. “Ho no ma, please respect my Jiggy, this is definitely Purple Label or that BBC stuff, or it’s probably customised,” Jay-Z brags to his mother.
A forerunner in the rap scene, he popularised high-end labels like Ralph Lauren. And Hov increased Billionaire Boys Club’s fame by introducing it to the ranks of the “must-wear” labels.