It's not easy getting into Jay-Z's recording home at Bassline Studios, tucked away on West 26th Street in Manhattan. I have to sneak in behind a woman walking into the building, take an elevator to the eighth floor, then knock on a pair of glass doors before a security guard ushers me into the reception area, where he quickly frisks me, relieves me of my tape recorder, and tells me to sit down and wait.
Finally after several minutes Def Jam publicist Jana Fleishman takes me to a suite equipped with a large-screen TV broadcasting Denzel Washington's Gulf War epic Courage Under Fire, a pool table, several plaques encasing throwback jerseys of basketball legends like Isaiah Thomas, and a number of platinum discs for Jay-Z albums such as The Life and Times of Shawn Carter, Vols. 1-3. In half an hour, the room fills to capacity with nearly 40 journalists like myself, including a crew from XXL magazine (which, predictably, was featuring Jay-Z on the cover of its upcoming issue) and writers from Blender, Entertainment Weekly and Spin. There are so many of us, in fact, that Fleishman returns to ask if anyone wants to take a rain check on the upcoming listening session for Jay-Z's highly touted eighth record, The Black Album. No one volunteers.
We all cram into a small recording room where Jay-Z sits at a console with the studio's engineer, Young Guru. Some of us end up sitting on the floor in the corner; I have the unfortunate position of standing right next to the massive speakers installed in the room's walls. "You guys ready?" Jay-Z asks. "Okay, this song is 'December 4,' and it's produced by Just Blaze."
"December 4" turns out to be a typically overheated Just Blaze production that somehow works to amazing effect, thanks to a loop taken from the O'Jays' "Something for Nothing," and despite the presence of Jay-Z's mother speaking on the chorus as a children's choir harmonizes in the background. Think The Blueprint redux. "I gave birth to Shawn Carter on December 4. He weighed in at ten pounds and eight ounces," she intones.
"Ten pounds I was born/I didn't give her no pain," Jay-Z adds. While "December 4" is mostly autobiographical, the last verse finds him aiming at his critics, ending with the promise, "You can't respect that/Your whole perspective is wack/Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black."
Next up is the Eminem-produced "A Moment of Clarity," a song that borrows heavily from Eminem's mentor Dr. Dre's love of thunderous, stomping bass lines. "Lyrically I be like Talib Kweli," Jay-Z boasts, accurately describing his ability to match so-called conscious rappers for intricate wordplay. But really, both rappers are in a quandary: Kweli badly wants to make popular art; Jay-Z, a master at cranking out hip-pop classics, hungers for the kind of critical acclaim regularly (some would say hastily) awarded to Kweli.
Every song he plays for us, in fact, is an attack against the haters who call him materialistic, cold and incapable of making truly uncompromising hip-hop. Unlike Prince's Black Album, this is no illicit, dirty funk excursion, but an angry diatribe with all the subtlety of a Jerry Bruckheimer flick; the last song he plays for us, "What More Can I Say?" ends with him slamming down the mike and yelling, "Fuck this, man." Still, his lyrics sound as fresh and metaphorically rich as anything he's ever written. He raps, "This ain't the show, I'm just EQ'ing," which is probably one of the dopest lines I've heard all year.
The music, however, is another matter. The Eminem and Just Blaze tracks pass muster with flying colors. An offering from Rick Rubin is good, but one wonders what it will sound like once the novelty of hearing Jay-Z over a rock & roll beat reminiscent of the Beastie Boys wears off. Others are just plain bad. A number by Timbaland, "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," sounds rote and mechanical; and "What More Can I Say?" created by a new production team called Buchanans, outdoes Just Blaze in pomp and pretension, even adding a screeching chorus by Vincent "Humvee" Bostic. Worst of all is "Change Clothes," an unctuous offering by the Neptunes that beats the pair's "Excuse Me Miss" in pop ickiness. Of course Jay-Z plans to make that the album's first single.
Although The Black Album is slated to have twelve cuts, Jay-Z plays only seven of them. "Seven is my favorite number," he says with a mischievous smile. The other five cuts feature two more tracks produced by Just Blaze, two by the Neptunes and one from DJ Quik. Afterward comes a short Q&A session. Most of the questions are asinine: "Did your mom write that herself?" one person asks Jay-Z, referring to the choruses on "December 4."
"I helped her out, but she did that herself," he answers. Then he laughs, "No, I didn't ghostwrite it."
In sharp contrast to the snarling on The Black Album, Jay-Z turns out to be an extremely charming man, full of sharp humor that's regularly topped off with a shy grin. But his mood turns serious when one journalist queries him about a line from "Moment of Clarity": "I dumbed down my audience and clocked more dollars/They criticize me for it yet they all yell, 'Holla!'" Why does Jay-Z feel like he has to dumb down his lyrics to gain commercial acceptance, the writer wants to know.
"If I release 'Song Cry,' I get 500 spins. If I put out 'Big Pimpin',' it's No. 1 for 13 weeks" on popular New York station Hot 97, he says. Of course "Big Pimpin'" is a great pop song, while "Song Cry" is a mediocre love ballad. These are distinctions that Jay-Z doesn't know, or at least pretends not to understand. For him, each record is a gift for the public to consume, a means for him to make money as an entertainer. But it doesn't matter whether we like The Black Album or not. Jay-Z will still believe that he is the consummate rapper, with more hit records than the late Notorious B.I.G.; more lyrical diversity than Tupac; more musical consistency than Nas.
But who can blame him for his arrogance? After all, Jay-Z is the artist, and we are the audience. Our acceptance or rejection of him doesn't change that. "I don't know," he finally shrugs in response to the journalist's question. "I haven't figured out the world."