10 Years Later: What If Jay Z Had Stayed Retired After Releasing The Black Album?
The Black Album came out on a Friday.
It was supposed to be a later Friday, November 28, 2003, but by the early days of that month, tracks on the album began to leak, much to the delight of the Kazaa-affiliated populace. “Due to individuals illegally distributing my album, I have no choice but to move the release date,” Jay Z said in a statement, with the album then pushed up two weeks to November 14.
That was 10 years ago today.
The Black Album came out a decade ago, which means it’s been 10 years since we were supposed to be done with Jay Z, the rapper, because of his retirement.
There’s no need to build up suspense as to what happened next, because we all know the retirement was short-lived, and we are still living in the era of that reversed decision. But it’s important to remember — as far-fetched as it seems in hindsight — that for a period of time, we all thought it was over.
Even with a project as phenomenal as The Black Album, it didn’t fully make sense that he’d stop. As eloquently stated by Ghostface Killah in the tunnels of Madison Square Garden on the night of Jay Z’s farewell show:
Why you leaving the game, baby? Know what I’m saying, you supposed to stay here and keep it thorough and … stay reppin’.
But even among the confusion (along with a variety of other emotions), all signs pointed toward him leaving said game, and everyone believed him.
People didn’t pile into Jay’s farewell concert on November 25, 2003, knowing every word to every song (amazingly, including the The Black Album, which had only been out 11 days) to see the concert of a man who would probably un-retire and go on to make seven more albums. The energy in that building was one of a kind, because the occasion of sending off a city’s favorite son in such a manner was a one-of-a-kind moment. Fade to Black is such a momentous film because you feel like you’re watching an actual swan song. A celebratory funeral. A future first-ballot Hall of Famer’s final at-bat. A boxer walking out to the ring for one final fight.
And then, just like that, it’s done.
In The Black Album itself, Jay did a phenomenal job of making it feel like the retirement was authentic; there were no real signs to suggest this was a stunt. There was no way to believe “My 1st Song” wouldn’t be his last song. I clearly remember getting through the first listen after purchasing the CD at Wherehouse Music, thinking Jay’s final rapped words to society were simply the perfect sign-off:
N----, I’m 'bout to go golfing, man.
Ay, I might even have me a cappuccino, fuck it.
I’m goin somewhere nice where no mosquitoes at n----
Holla at me — it’s ya boy.
It was his version of Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is.” Jay had done it. The phrase from “Encore” — “from Marcy to Madison Square” — had come true. What else did he have to prove? Why not go golf, or dabble in the world of cappuccinos, or find an exotic place on Earth that not even mosquitoes had found?
It all just felt right. For the listener, it was sad, but it was executed perfectly. And, unlike most things, the final chapter that was The Black Album actually lived up to the hype. He nailed it. Ten years later, you still feel like he nailed it.
The Black Album can be your favorite Jay album. That’s not an offensive thing to believe. And given the context that it was released in, if you’re a Jay fan, it kind of makes sense.
But then he didn’t quit. Like Ghostface said, apparently there was more keeping-it-thorough to be done and more reppin’ to do. So he came back, giving us a full career’s worth of music, again.
When discussing his return, an interesting daydream to fall into is imagining a world without the music from his Wizards years. When I’ve had these discussions before, they usually center on how hard it is to imagine certain songs not existing. That’s well and good, but a more interesting aspect to consider, especially when thinking of Jay as one of the figures who has had his hand in everything over the past 15 years, are the moments that aligned themselves with post–Black Album songs that never would exist, had he retired in 2003.
Yes, without “Empire State of Mind,” New York wouldn’t have a second song to play at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Equally as important, if “Empire State of Mind” didn’t exist, there would be no stage for Lil Mama to crash at the 2009 VMAs. In 2013, I think about, and appreciate, that moment more than the song itself, and I hope you do too.
Or “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is …).” It’s easily one of Jay’s best un-retirement songs. It’s hard to imagine the hundreds of playlists I’ve made in the past decade without it, but if there’s no “Roc Boys,” there’s no “Roc Boys” video. And if there’s no “Roc Boys” video, this doesn’t exist.
That’s hard to deal with. And a step further, if this triumvirate never got together for this video, five years of my life thinking I was cool because of this handshake go flying out of the window.
My twenties without the Roc Boys salute? I’d rather pass. On my twenties.
Or Jay’s anticipated comeback album, the “whatever” Kingdom Come, which led with a much-hyped, lackluster track with a great beat, “Show Me What You Got.” At the time, the song was decent, made weirder once the video came out with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick; but quickly after its release, there was no need to listen to it, because 2007 mixtape-era Lil Wayne, a superhuman among mere mortals, got his hands on the beat. And the end result was “Dough Is What I Got” from Da Drought 3, a track that greatly aided in the early stages of his ascent to gigantic hit-or-miss-miss-miss pop star that he is today.
If Jay never comes out with the skippable Kingdom Come, we may never have gotten Wayne’s three-line manifesto about Mortal Kombat:
Tryin' to tell you I can kick like Liu Kang n----
Got that Sub-Zero flow how you want me ma
N---- get it over here like Scorpion.
I don’t want a world where that never happened. But it did, and Wayne’s career is forever changed because of the track. Because he destroyed Jay over his own beat, a pattern he was in the midst of at the time, and would continue for years to follow.
Wayne’s career benefited by Jay un-retiring, making him one of a number of artists who gained from his return. And Kanye West is the most obvious of them all.
So much of Kanye’s early career (a solo period that officially began in 2004) was built around impressing — and ultimately trying to pass — his mentor. That was a process that ultimately needed validation while they were both working rappers. They needed to work together and be on the same team, but occasionally spar. (See: Watch the Throne.) Kanye can’t become the Kanye we know now if their careers are thought of as being parts of two different eras in hip-hop. His entire narrative changes if he’s simply trying to best a retired legend.
The “What if?” game could go on forever (insert Jay retiring = “Bleek becoming the next big thing” joke here), but of the major bullet points in Jay’s life, post 2003, there’s really only one other major thing to consider. It’s the main question to ask yourself, and potentially lose sleep over, if Jay stays retired.
Does Jay marry Beyoncé? And by “does Jay marry Beyoncé,” of course I mean “does Beyoncé marry Jay?”
Does the young, bona fide superstar singer/actress continue her not-so-secret relationship with a man who is hanging up his cool in exchange for the retired life? Does she still remain smitten with this man, 11 years her senior, now that he’s no longer setting the trends and impacting culture with his words and declaration of what trends he’s “off”? Yes, had Jay gone out with The Black Album and Fade to Black, we’d all probably think of him as some mythical, faun-like Narnia creature, a feeling he no longer elicits as strongly (see: “twerk Miley Miley, twerk Miley Miley, twerk”), but is aughts-Bey really looking for a legend? Or would she be off that, and trade him in for something more spritely?
I’d like to think, in any scenario, that Jay and Bey end up married and with child, because love is patient and love is kind, but who knows.
But, as 2013 comes to a close, just consider this for a moment. If there’s no Bey and Jay, there’s no Blue Ivy. And if there’s no Bey and Jay, there’s probably no Kanye and Kim. And if there’s no Kanye and Kim, there’s no Yeezus or Baby Nori.
And if there’s no Bey and Jay, Kanye and Kim, Yeezus and Magna Carta … Holy Grail, Blue Ivy and Nori, Legends of the Summer and Yeezus tours, Barney’s partnerships gone wrong, Jimmy Kimmel rants, or Beyoncé’s Tumblr, did 2013 even really happen?