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Retirement party
Jay-Z says sayonara on The Black Album

Jay-Z and the Neptunes have been one of the most successful rapper/producer teams in hip-hop for what seems like an eternity. Their first hit collaboration, the airy pimp fantasy "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," came out back in 2000, when the Neptunesí domination of the pop-music landscape was just getting under way. Last summer, they alternated star turns on two shared efforts: Jay-Z struck first with the seductive slow jam "Excuse Me Miss," then Pharrell from the Neptunes played top banana on "Frontiní," the lead single from the hit compilation The Neptunes Present . . . Clones (Arista). Both tracks hit the Top 10 and heated up dance floors worldwide.

Now theyíre back on top of the pops with "Change Clothes," the first single from Jay-Zís new The Black Album (Roc-a-fella), which he claims is his last solo joint. As usual, sex is the name of their game: "No bra with that blouse, itís so necessary/No panties and jeans, itís so necessary," Jigga drools as the Neptunesí clanky percussion eases the beat forward. Pharrell takes over on the chorus, enhancing the lover-man vibe with his trademark gooey falsetto and smooth synth melodies. The video finds them in da club, entertaining runway models and enjoying the funk. As retirement parties go, it sure beats a Cher arena show.

Next month, chances are Jay-Z and the Neptunes will be celebrating together again at the 2003 Grammys, where theyíre both nominated in several categories. Jay-Z is up for Best Rap Album for The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse, Best Rap Song for "Excuse Me Miss," and four different awards (including Record of the Year) for his guest appearance on "Crazy in Love," the exhilarating summer smash by his girlfriend Beyoncé. For their work on "Excuse Me Miss," "Frontiní," and many others, the Neptunes are up for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. A victory for either would be a long-overdue gesture of industry recognition: Jay-Zís one previous Grammy win came in 1998, and the Neptunes are still looking for their first.

It would also be a nice going-away present for Jigga, who leaves at the top of his game on The Black Album. He secured his underground cred with his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, which did okay at radio but made most of its impact on the street, where the Brooklyn native (born Shawn Carter) had only recently stopped selling crack. From the beginning, he ran his own Roc-a-fella label, which switched distributors from Priority to Def Jam after his first album. With that commercial upgrade, he started shooting for the pop charts: his biggest seller, Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life, sampled the Annie soundtrack and helped launch the career of Murder Inc. kingpins Ja Rule and Irv Gotti. Timbaland and the Neptunes signed on for an impressive parade of follow-up hits, and before long Jay-Z was storming the airwaves with beats crafted by homegrown Roc-a-fella talent like Kanye West and Just Blaze. The numbers say it all: heís sold 18 million discs, and The Black Album is his sixth consecutive #1 hit.

Jay-Z is the first act to hit the charts using The Black Album as an official title, but the term has a storied history in the pop vernacular. The most famous "black album" of all time is 1991ís diamond-certified Metallica (Elektra), which is nicknamed for its distinctive cover art: all black, with a cracked stencil of the bandís logo in the top left-hand corner and a silver rattlesnake in the bottom right-hand corner. Jay-Zís new album cover ó a silhouette of the rapper pulling a ball cap over his eyes, with his name and the title printed across the top ó is almost as shadowy. Two cult faves, Prince (originally available only as a bootleg, and finally released by Warner Bros. in 1994) and 1984ís This Is Spinal Tap (PolyGram), did away with graphics altogether. And the spiritual godfather of them all has to be the AC/DC classic Back in Black (Epic), which has a different title but pretty much started the whole solid-black-cover art craze.

Of course, there probably wouldnít be any "black albums" at all without 1968ís The Beatles (Capitol), the landmark "white album" by the band who will always be the antithesis of everything bad-asses like Jay-Z, Metallica, and AC/DC stand for. Still, rock and hip-hop hooligans alike understand the Beatlesí concept: when your image threatens to overwhelm the music, go back to basics. For the Beatles, AC/DC, and Metallica, the move resulted in the most commercially successful releases of their careers. For Jay-Z, The Black Album is a different kind of pinnacle: "If you canít respect that, your whole perspective is wack/Maybe youíll love me when I fade to black," he sneers on "December 4th." Itís ó purportedly ó the final curtain on his career. Lights out.

Given the rock-identified conceit of the title, it makes sense that halfway through The Black Album, Jay-Z teams up with crossover production gods Eminem and Rick Rubin for two of the most rock-friendly gestures heís ever made. Eminemís skin color might be part of the reason he gets airplay on rock radio, but itís not the only one: his most recent hit, "Sing for the Moment," was based on Aerosmithís "Dream On," and his best tracks favor live instruments over samples. Thatís the approach he takes on "Moment of Clarity," a booming track that pieces a chorus together out of the names of Jay-Zís previous albums. Jigga picks topics he and Em can bond over: his absentee father on the first verse, self-defense when it comes to courting the mainstream on the second. Itís as forceful and ego-free as superstar collaborations get.

The Rubin track, "99 Problems," comes right after "Moment of Clarity" and rocks as much as you would expect from a dude whose biggest clients these days are System of a Down and Audioslave. But heís also the same guy who co-founded Def Jam back in 1984 and launched the career of the Beastie Boys, and thatís the Rubin who shows up to work with Jay-Z. "If you haviní girl problems, I feel bad for you son/I got 99 problems but a bitch ainít one," shouts Jigga over a ferocious beat grafted from obscure albums by rock dinosaurs Leslie West and Billy Squier. The collaboration isnít as seamless as the one on "Moment of Clarity": Jay-Z is playing off the Licensed To Ill vibe, not the other way around. Then again, heís obviously having a ball, spinning yarns about a close call with the law back in his hustling days and giving his producer a well-deserved shout-out: "You crazy for this one, Rick!"

The rest of the album ditches the rock vibe in favor of brash electrosoul textures that would sound right at home on a Justin Timberlake disc ó which is a good thing, as we all learned last year. The Neptunes follow up the crowd-pleasing "Change Clothes" with the thuggish tour de force "Allure," on which Jay-Z drops a somber ode to the magnetic pull of the streets over a kaleidoscope of rainy-day melodies and beats. Timbaland gets his say on "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," a spacy pimp anthem that name-checks Jiggaís new "elite sports bar," 40/40 Club in Manhattan. Not quite "Cry Me a River" and "Rock Your Body," but not bad, either.

Like the Neptunes, producer Kanye West gets two chances to strut his stuff on The Black Album. West isnít yet as ubiquitous as Pharrell, but heís getting there: he has the Jay-Z classics " í03 Bonnie & Clyde" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" under his belt, and he just rode Ludacrisís audacious "Stand Up" all the way to #1. Both of his tracks here are knockouts, starting with the horn-driven party jam "Encore." "Iím young H.O., rapís Grateful Dead/Back to take over the globe, and I break bread," Jigga brags, later quoting "Leaving on a Jet Plane" to complete the hippie retirement metaphor. Westís "Lucifer" is built around a reggae vocal sample so irresistible that Jay-Z barely even tries to compete with it for attention.

Thereís plenty of sex and violence on The Black Album, but Jay-Z also uses his farewell as an opportunity to do two things: address the scars of his childhood and proclaim his status as "the greatest of all time," as L.L. Cool J might put it. His mother, Gloria Carter, shows up on "December 4th" to fill in the biographical details, like how hurt the boy was when his father left. His dad died last year, so "Moment of Clarity" opens with a poignant verse: "Pop died, didnít cry, didnít know him that well/Between him doing heroin and me doing crack sales." On "What More Can I Say," Jigga argues for his hip-hop supremacy with style to burn, freestyling up a storm as the rhythm track fades. "I supposed to be #1 on everybody list/Weíll see what happens when I no longer exist," he concludes, slamming the door on his way out.

The Black Album comes full circle on the closing "My 1st Song," with a rookie producer named Aqua, a quote from the Notorious B.I.G., and a few minutes of misty-eyed shout-outs. The songís final verse is killer: Jay-Z calls the retirement his "second major break-up" after quitting the drug trade and jokes that heís turning his back on fame but not fortune. "Iím about to go golfing, man," he laughs as the track fades, conjuring images of Michael Jordan, another star who quit while he was ahead. Time will tell whether Jay-Z has learned enough from the mistake of Jordanís final comeback to keep it that way.

Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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