As befits a rapper who calls himself "the black Warren Buffett," and whose label is named after a family that embodies wealth and capitalism, Jay-Z has always been as much a businessman as a rapper. He's already gone from celebrating his mastery of the street game to trumpeting his domination of the pop arena, but Jay-Z insists that The Black Album will be his final disc. While that seems like a transparent ploy to generate excitement about the seemingly inevitable comeback album and tour, it's succeeded in making Jay-Z's latest one of the most eagerly anticipated records in rap history. The Black Album also ostensibly marks the first time Jay-Z has written down his lyrics before recording his verses, rather than keeping them in his head. Yet for all the rapper's talk about The Black Album's uniqueness, it's essentially The Blueprint 3.0. After the sprawling, uneven, overlong double-disc The Blueprint 2, Roc-A-Fella's franchise player thankfully rediscovers brevity and consistency on The Black Album, a single disc that barely breaks the 55-minute mark. Of course, the dirty little secret of Jay-Z's career is that his albums are enjoyed as much for their beats as their rhymes. Widely if questionably heralded as one of the greatest rappers of all time, he makes records that, first and foremost, provide a vital showcase for the top producers of the day. The Black Album is no exception. Blueprint sonic architects Kanye West and Just Blaze lend glossy, soulful contributions that amply pay Jay-Z back for making their careers, while wild-card beatsmith Rick Rubin makes a triumphant return to big-time hip-hop production with "99 Problems," which hearkens back to the heavy-metal thunder of Rubin's work with Run DMC and Beastie Boys. Little Brother's 9th Wonder makes an impressive leap to the majors with "Threat," which engineers a subtle Best Of Both Worlds reunion by sneaking in near-subliminal bits of R. Kelly's "A Woman's Threat." An introspective Jay-Z gives props to Talib Kweli and Common while casting a backward glance over his life and career, making it easy to overlook The Black Album's refreshing dearth of guest appearances. If this does mark the rapper's farewell, he's ending his recording career with a bang, in a fitting tribute to Jay-Z's favorite person in the world: himself.
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