DARK vs DARK: A Comparison of ‘The Black Album’ and ‘Beg For Mercy’
It’s rare that a victory lap amounts to much more than gratuitous showboating or preening for your adoring crowd. Yet in 2003, with a planned retirement in his sights, Jay Z went hard in the paint instead of gentle into that good night. The Black Album, which was at the time hailed as his final album, effectively obliterated any and all doubts following his indulgent yet successful The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. Boasting some of the biggest hip-hop producers of its time —The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Kanye West — the record largely eschewed special guests and put the spotlight firmly on the Brooklyn emcee at what could be considered his creative zenith. With ubiquitous singles like “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “99 Problems,” it went triple-platinum in less than two years.
Notably, The Black Album and Beg For Mercy happened to share the same release date: November 14, 2003 (and having no aversion to competition, 50 Cent would later pit his Curtis against Kanye West’s Graduation in 2007). Ten years later, Jigga’s farewell proved short-lived and Fiddy’s status in the rap game steadily decreased. History, however, affords us an opportunity to reevaluate the two albums — two of the most important rap albums of the 21st century — on this noteworthy anniversary, comparing and contrasting on their respective merits and faults. And though three (G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks, Young Buck, and 50 Cent) against one may appear an unfair fight, rest assured a former underdog like H.O.V.A. probably would like his odds.
Best Outcome from Borrowing One Another’s Producer(s)
The colossal success of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ wasn’t lost on a shrewd observer like Jay Z. So while The Black Album was populated by some of the same hit-making beatsmiths from his previous records, the Eminem/Luis Resto produced “Moment Of Clarity” stuck out like a sore thumb. Of course, Slim Shady had featured on 2001’s The Blueprint as both rapper and producer, but this latest pairing seems more like a defensive maneuver, with Jigga either shook by 50’s rapid rise or hoping to co-opt some 8 Mile mojo. But it’s a misguided attempt to graft the Shady/Aftermath aesthetic onto his Rocawear frame, and has a coarse quality to it that disrupts the album’s characteristic fluidity.
Conversely, G-Unit’s “Smile” fit right in among Beg For Mercy’s bullish synth work. Known previously for working with Common during his ‘90s come-up, No I.D.— who incidentally released a solo LP called The Black Album six years earlier—had snagged a spot on The Blueprint 2 with “All Around The World” but the track understandably got lost in that release’s double-disc shuffle. A sort-of successor to 50’s chart-topping “21 Questions” in both style and substance, the Chicagoan’s sleek production jelled with Lloyd Banks’ passionate thug verses and rightfully served as the album’s third charting single.
Most Compelling Street Storytelling
Part of what made 50 Cent such a popular new artist a decade ago was his thrilling, accessible lyricism. Less insular than the backpack snobs and a welcome respite from some of the more monosyllabic thugs, his style seemed less concerned with burying listeners in jargon than giving them a focused perspective on the coldhearted realities of surviving on his turf. Cuts like “I’m So Hood” and “G’d Up” painted vivid portraits of shady characters and dangerous situations familiar to the G-Unit soldiers.
But Jay Z practically reinvented the street narrative with album standout and career highlight “99 Problems.” A direct attack on the “girl problems” tracks some of his contemporaries felt compelled to release, the track dismisses such minor worries over a bombastic Rick Rubin beat. The game-changer comes on the instantly memorable second verse, a real-time account of racial profiling while being pulled over for “driving while black” — one of the best depictions of racism in rap to date.
Winner: Jay Z
Most Effective Misuse of Religious Imagery
It’s more than a little disconcerting to listen to 50 reciting bits of an inspirational Christian poem on the hook of a track as bloodthirsty and murderous as “Footprints.” Already unsettling to begin with, Young Buck’s homicidal hood tale embraces depravity by adopting that hopeful beach parable as a delusional mantra. Yet instead of riffing off that theme, the self-proclaimed “King Of The South” all but ignores the opportunity for religious doublespeak in favor of street-level chest-beating.
On “Lucifer,” Jay seems keen to play both sides, cozying up to protective angels and necessary devils almost simultaneously. Full of threatening menace, his sacrilegious bars liken a spray of holy water to automatic gunfire and twist Bible verses like “vengeance is mine” into clever, convenient blasphemy. Yet the penitent interlude and final verse acknowledges his sins and that of those departed and dear to him, including Roc-A-Fella associate Kareem Burke’s brother Bob.
Winner: Jay Z
Finest R&B Crossover Effort
While The Neptunes had featured tracks on a couple of Jay Z albums before, not the least of which being “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” 2003 saw the Roc-A-Fella kingpin return the favor with a verse on the production duo’s Clones compilation. Credited to Pharrell, the single “Frontin’” soared on the charts and helped the album achieve gold status. Naturally, the duo hoped lightning would strike twice and the collaborative “Change Clothes” became The Black Album’s first proper single, peaking at the low end of the Billboard Top 10 and garnering a fashion-centric music video populated by top models.
For the radio-friendly “Wanna Get To Know You,” G-Unit turned to R&B singer Joe, best known for 2000’s “I Wanna Know,” to sing a note-for-note interpolation of Marvin Gaye’s “Come Live With Me Angel.” Banks, Buck, and 50 all took turns on the verses, each making their respective case to ladies in general and in particular. In retrospect, “Change Clothes” simply doesn’t shine in light of Jay’s catalog like “Wanna Get To Know You” does.
Deepest Display of Love for The Hustle
Both Beg For Mercy and The Black Album spend a considerable amount of time cataloging the rappers’ hood bonafides. Lyrical boasts and threats set against a ghetto backdrop characterized most rap albums then (and now), but anyone who’s repeatedly watched gangster films like Carlito’s Way, Scarface and especially 2002’s Paid In Full knows that it’s one thing to hustle and another thing altogether to love the hustle.
So while G-Unit’s gritty antagonism (“Eye For Eye”) and firearm fetishism (“My Buddy”) both commanded and demonstrated respect, Jay practically bursts with affection on “Allure,” apparently one of his most favorite tracks in his entire catalog. Though he exhibits a slight veteran’s weariness in spots, the reflective emcee can’t help but excite himself with all the trappings of drug dealing, from the expensive whips to the beautiful women. Despite it all, he simply can’t leave the game alone.
Winner: Jay Z
Overall Winner: Jay Z, The Black Album
Ten years is a long time in a forward-facing scene like hip-hop, but certain records endure. Beg For Mercy truly was a product of its time and G-Unit bolstered New York hip-hop in the face of growing national competition. Being inclusive of a Southerner like Young Buck (and later West Coast rapper The Game) certainly helped. But The Black Album remains more than just a classic, instead becoming a highly influential document that still resonates along contemporary rap music.