Hip hop is approaching a 40 year life span. What some thought would die early has gone on to get bigger and more diverse than anyone ever expected. And in those almost 40 years the general consensus among numerous rap fans has been that Illmatic is one of if not the greatest album in the genre’s history. At ten songs in 39 minutes, all practically flawless it’s an easy selection for the highest honor and anyone over the age of 25 has to remember playing it endlessly back in the days of tims and hoodies. But just because it’s always been the best album does that mean it always will be? Or has another release come along in recent years that at this point should surpass Illmatic and grab the title for best rap album of all time? The answer is yes and it’s The Black Album.
Back in 2003 one of the most well known and perhaps the best MC we’ll ever see in our lifetime announced his retirement. His swan song was an album with no guest features but with a powerhouse production team and the perfect sequencing of tracks. Lyrically Jay had never been better and his confidence in releasing the best material possible before retiring made the record only that much better. From the opening song about his childhood to the shoutouts at the end of “My First Song” (a joint which saw him return to his fast flow roots) every minute of the album was on point. It had its highlights, like “Encore”, “What More Can I Say” and the Timbaland banger “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” but every single song was solid, a rare feat especially in today’s rap world.
Perception and timing is everything, which is why Illmatic was so monumental as it was released at a time when the West Coast was still dominating the charts. It made New York rap relevant again (Wu-Tang might have a little more responsibility for that but whatever) and it fully encompassed the time in which it was released. The Black Album was a retirement record, and so part of the greatness of it was the knowledge that this would be the last time we would ever hear a Jay-Z album and what we got was perfection. It was sad and epic at the same time.
So why is The Black Album better? Well for starters it better reflects hip hop as a whole than Illmatic. When Nas dropped his debut the genre was still in its infancy and was trying to find its identity. Nas truly represented rap on that album in the rawest form possible with street tales and observations along with just flat out rap skills. But The Black Album was more diverse in its topics, in its production, in its representation of what hip hop has come to be over the years. You had the Rick Rubin rock-influenced song, a tribute to the old days of Def Jam. You had the song for females which has become a staple in every rapper’s repertoire. You had the club banger from Timbo, the pure skills raps of “What More Can I Say” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and especially “Public Service Announcement”. But you also had the reflective tracks like “Lucifer” and “Moment of Clarity”. And in all of its diverseness The Black Album was still very cohesive and flowed together flawlessly. Again, a perfectly sequenced album.
Not to take anything away from Illmatic but we can’t keep hanging on to the same perception that the almost 20 year old album from Nas is still the best thing rap has ever blessed our ears with. Sure it’s a great record but by today’s standards it’s really one-dimensional whereas The Black Album offers a wide variety of music, all put together properly with lyrical gems sprinkled all over. Putting a track like “Encore” at the beginning of a retirement album might seem wrong but for some reason it worked brilliantly, again attesting to the masterful sequencing on what is now most definitely the greatest rap album of all time.