As ubiquitous as hip-hop has become, it can be difficult to remember just how far outside the mainstream it was in the 1980s. Now it’s on the TV and in movies and soundtracking commercials and on the radio (people still listen to the radio, right?). It’s a musical language most people are familiar with, if not entirely conversant in. We’ve come a long way from “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” where even the most recalcitrant rap naysayer (i.e., my dad) at least knows who Kanye West is, even if he can’t hum the hook to “Gold Digger.”
But it wasn’t that way in the late 80s, when I was developing my musical identity. In rural Ohio, hip-hop was still very much a dangerous prospect. All the “Walk This Way”‘s and Beastie Boyses in the world couldn’t diminish the perspective that rappists and their fans were hooligans at best, criminals at worst. And this was before N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and the kerfuffle a bunch of scared white people brought down on everyone. But I loved it, almost from the get-go. True, starting in 1988 (my 10th grade year), my musical bread and butter has always been fey honkies playing guitars that jingle-jangle, but Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back blew the top of my head off. I couldn’t begin to relate to the rage Chuck D was expressing, but there’s always been an anti-authoritarian streak running right below the surface of my personality, and I could absolutely relate to Chuck’s “fuck the Man” sentiments.
I loved Public Enemy so much that I had to figure out what else I’d been missing.* In a year or so I discovered Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr and De La Soul. The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest were just around the corner, and of course so were N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and Ice-T and the continued fear that hip-hop was going to pollute the precious bodily fluids of a bunch of suburban white kids. (Which it kind of did. Which is good.)
All of which is to simply establish some street cred where hip-hop is concerned. I’m not the most obvious hip-hop fan, but my love for the genre runs deep and is 100% genuine. And all of that brings me to my inaugural entry in the Discogs Challenge, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003).
Like any good middle-aged hipster, I actually first encountered this album via Danger Mouse’s 2004 Beatles/Hova mash-up, The Grey Album. I of course knew “99 Problems” (because I was a a breathing, carbon-based life form), but that’s about as far as it went. Truth is, I had stopped listening to much hip-hop – where early rap spoke to me as modern-day protest anthems, the rise of gangsta rap just felt like sensationalist nihilism – so I really didn’t know anything at all about Jay-Z when I first gave The Grey Album a listen.
In some ways this now makes a kind of prophetic sense because huge swaths of The Black Album have now entered the pop culture canon to such a degree that they sound as familiar as anything by The Beatles. The thing that strikes me now listening to The Black Album is that’s a near-perfect juxtaposition of braggadocio and vulnerability. Nothing captures this more than “December 4th,” an origin story as compelling as anything in the Marvel Universe. Backed by a melodramatic brass fanfare, Jay tells his story: from birth to early childhood, his later introduction to drug dealing and ultimate decision to leave that career behind to pursue music. Running parallel to his own narrative we get spoken-word interludes from his mom that serve to fill in some gaps from her perspective. But the really striking thing is how Jay (and his mom) includes details that run the risk of softening him in a genre that rarely values perceived weakness: “But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matchin’ my gear”; “Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me”; “I pray I’m forgiven / For every bad decision i made.” It’s a hell of a statement of purpose for the album, and it’s such a strong track that on many albums it would be the high point.
(skip to :40 if you want to avoid some early-video tomfoolery)
Unbelievably, The Black Album improves from there, running from strength to strength for nearly an hour in a melding of styles that ensures the album never gets old. There’s the relentless momentum and breathless flow of “Encore,” the slinky grooves of “Change Clothes,” the film noir menace of “Moment of Clarity,” the sultry whispered hook of “Justify My Thug,” and the Latin spice of “Lucifer.” And of course there’s the Twin Towers of the album, the angry and defiant “99 Problems” and the empowerment anthem “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
For what it’s worth, while “99 Problems” is the song that gets all the press, I think “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the album’s true standout. The hook is more indelible, the lyrics more nuanced, the production more subtle.
Whatever your own preference is, the important thing to remember is this: an album that could boast just one of these songs would be remarkable; that Jay-Z can bury both of them in the middle of The Black Album is the sign of a record making its case for immortality.
* Full disclosure: I make it sound as though It Takes a Nation . . . was my first exposure to hip-hop, which just isn’t true. Like anyone who was watching MTV in the early 80s, I was a fan of the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith hybrid “Walk This Way,” and I recorded LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” off the radio a year or two before my Public Enemy epiphany and played it incessantly, fancying myself a loverman-in-training.