From A- to A

Jay-Z’s final album is his most professional yet.

Swan song sings

Jay-Z is the classic A- student, smart enough to get by on 11 p.m. papers, and arrogant enough to think he doesn’t need to do better. “My mother told me you had to work hard for what you wanted. I didn’t have to work hard at rhyming,” he said this October. But he’s no slacker: “Shrewd, chilly businessman” is the popular thumbnail of Jay-Z’s character. Who else but a natural-born businessman would take time off from superstardom to run a record label, clothing company, nightclub, sneaker line, and a vodka brand, all profitably? And Jay-Z works best when there’s something spurring him to stay at the office an extra hour, maybe even get a little worked up: Feuds with other MCs, grief, the desire to make a great debut. For The Black Album, Jay-Z has created his own inspiration. He’s decided to retire. It worked. The Black Album is the most consistent Jay-Z album since his finest, Vol. 3 … The Life and Times of S. Carter.

The Black Album has to answer a lot of questions. Is Jay-Z really a genius or just the consummate professional? If his friend, classmate, and competitor Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace hadn’t been murdered in 1997, could Jay-Z have become the king of New York? Will people ever love Jay the way they loved Big? Jay-Z wants to tip the scales in his favor, so he hired more producers than usual, put the necessary blockbuster narrative elements in place (touching autobiography, sexy dance scene, explosions, sci-fi elements), and executed it as Jerry Bruckheimer-style.

His business model has needed a shot in the arm for a while. His most recent album, The Blueprint 2: The Gift and Curse (2002) was a bloated double CD that suggested Jay’s professionalism was taking precedence over his song-writing. And the biggest sales of Jay’s career are stranded back in 1998, when a producer named DJ Mark the 45 King used a big sample of the song “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from the score for the 1977 musical Annie. In exploiting the contrast between a hustler’s sangfroid and the sweet realpolitik of the kids’ chorus, Jay-Z found the novelty and charm he’d lacked. “Hard Knock Life” propelled the album of the same name to 5 million sales, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, a first for Jay-Z. That momentum carried him into his best album to date, 1999’s Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, which peaked at No. 1, as would every subsequent record.

But no album after Vol. 3 has sold as well, and sometimes Jay-Z’s position feels like a default one. Jay had to sample Annie to fuse street and funny. Biggie just had to open his mouth. Jay-Z certainly thinks about this comparison as much as anyone else, posing the question himself on 1997’s “Where I’m From”: “I from where niggas pull your card/ and argue all day about who’s the best MC/ Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas.” On The Black Album, Jay-Z tries to close the case on “What More Can I Say?”: “I’m supposed to be Number One on everybody’s list/ we’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.”

Jay-Z should know that ghosts don’t lie down if you keep invoking them. The here on The Black Album, cannily titled “My 1st Song,” begins with an archived testimonial from Biggie: “The key to staying on top of things is to treat everything like it’s your first project.” The beat by newcomer Aqua combines a wonderful, shoulder-dipping rhythm and a little halo of guitar bends. It sounds both reflective and supple, much like Jay-Z’s poor Yorick, Biggie.

Another friend who hovers over the album is the lover he won’t discuss, Beyoncé Knowles, a genius in her own right and a human klieg light. One felicitous aspect of The Black Album that you might attribute to the tactful presence of a bootylicious editor is the absence of the bitches-and-hoes boilerplate that drags down several Jay-Z albums, most notably the sour and mean The Dynasty Roc La Familia from 2000. Hell, this album starts with Jay-Z’s mother testifying that he learned to ride a two-wheeler when he was 4. If that’s not a polite nod to his God-fearing, mother-centric girlfriend, then it’s straight tear-jerking. We’ll happily take either.

But even the idle listener will notice that one of the best songs here, “99 Problems,” does repeat the word “bitch” many, many times. Jay-Z carefully explained in several listening sessions that “bitch” is a metaphor for, in order: unscrupulous media outlets; the police; and people who take Jay-Z to court. The chorus—“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son/ I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”—doesn’t exactly strip the metaphor of gender, but we can be thankful “99 Problems” isn’t a song about kicking women out of bed after sex. It is, instead, producer Rick Rubin’s rubber-burning return to hip-hop. Two very large guitar chords are triggered repeatedly over an unholy blend of Billy Squier’s “Big Beat” and Mountain’s “Long Red,” rock drum samples that have been part of hip-hop for so long they have dual citizenship. Jay swings through the beat like an X-wing crop-dusting the Death Star, debating a state trooper on the finer points of stop-and-search procedures.

There were two rumored organizing principles behind The Black Album: Revive the gritty, emotional lyrics of Jay-Z’s highly respected 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt and solicit a beat from every great producer Jay-Z has worked with. With a few exceptions—Dr. Dre and DJ Premier are absent—this is roughly what Jay has done. There are no guest MCs, a much appreciated anomaly in hip-hop, and the songs are brilliantly sequenced. The boring beats come right before explosive beats (hello, Eminem!). One of the only odd choices is the album’s first single, “Change Clothes,” produced by the Neptunes, sung by Pharrell Williams, and immortalized in the video by a barnful of models. What starts as a garden-variety brag with a light dusting of ribaldry ends up sounding like the elevator at Macy’s traveling up and down, Williams squeaking “Change clothes!” every time it clangs to a stop.

Before you start thinking Jay-Z has been sipping too much Armadale at the 40/40, producer Timbaland does what he does best: save the day with pure crunktion. (Yes, it’s a word. No, you can’t look it up.) “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is a thunderous track that recalls the weird élan of Timbaland and Jay-Z’s last big hit together, “Big Pimpin’.” It is likely you will see people who should know better dancing to this song and brushing invisible dirt off their shoulders. Be kind—they will have no choice.

Even hip-hop fanatics who spend 23 hours a day on the Internet testifying for their favorites MCs might agree with Jay-Z’s own career review on “What More Can I Say?”: “There’s never been a nigga this good for this long, this hood or this pop, this hot or this strong.” The greatest of all time? The Talmudic scholars of hip-hop know that’s an unanswerable question. Just as Jay-Z and Nas’ feud was just an excuse to reinject significance into the mission statement, the disputes over the best MC of all time are just invitations to keep the argument going. Jay-Z’s own retirement is nothing but an external variable designed to make himself work harder. In the absence of his old friend Biggie, Jay-Z is Jay-Z’s only competition. Both Jay-Zs will likely return.