Albums of the decade No 8: Jay-Z - The Black Album

Few would disagree with Jay-Z's boast about being the 'best rapper alive' after hearing this gloriously epic album

It was billed at the time as his swansong. During a playback at his Baseline Studios in New York, shortly before its release in 2003, Jay-Z was adamant that after this, his eighth album in eight years, he was ready to pass the mic for good. But no one really believed him.

Hova's ambitious plans for The Black Album involved a dozen producers serving up a dozen different tracks. Ultimately this proved a little too ambitious even for him, but the finished product did feature all the producers du jour – Timbaland, Just Blaze, Kanye West, the Neptunes, Eminem and even Rick Rubin. Many consider The Blueprint to be his greatest album – after which even Jay-Z admits he "dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars" – but with an unrivalled list of heavyweights behind him, The Black Album was the more rounded, polished beast.

From the opening interlude – "All things must come to an end, all things must conclude" – to the final word, it's a gloriously epic, self-celebratory album. Even Ma Carter makes an appearance on December 4th, waxing lyrical about her "special child". Jay-Z might boast that he's the "best rapper alive", but few would disagree on the basis of the inventive rhymes and free flow that power the narrative. The rhetorical What More Can I Say breaks down at the end, leaving him in full dextrous a cappella, the sound of a man (supposedly) stepping out at the top of his game: "Pound to pound I'm the best to ever come around here, excluding nobody ... I'm suppos'd to be number one on everybody's list, we'll see what happens when I no longer exist."

It closed with My First Song, which brought us back to Jay-Z's debut single of 1996. Except it didn't, did it? He inevitably returned, and three albums later, has now overtaken Elvis as the most successful US solo star ever. On record, however, the encore has yet to match what was supposed to be his final word.

Buy this Sunday's Observer for the full top 50 countdown, plus an interview with the winner


Luke Bainbridge

The GuardianTramp

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