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“Retirement” is the word most associated with The Black Album, but Jay-Z claims that his promise to quit is not a crass publicity stunt. Hiphop is boring now; he wants to leave on top; there are no more feuds worth prolonging—he has a litany of artistic reasons to stop recording long-players. Despite all that, though, the decision to kill the heart of the operation still seems enigmatic.

The man born Shawn Carter has always sought something more elusive than mere hiphop immortality: He wants to be an aristocrat—the authentic kind, the man-of-mystery kind. East Coast hiphop already has enough captains of industry: Sean Combs, Russell Simmons, and so on. Jay-Z has the same kind of cash flow, but he comes across as a relatively humble mogul. His relationship with Beyoncé Knowles, his vodka brand, his offer for the New Jersey Nets—they’re all part of the normal flow of things. He doesn’t crave constant validation from polite society like those other guys—he wants to be Bruce Wayne without the Batman gig.

For Jay-Z the rapper, though, there are consequences. No matter how good The Black Album gets—and it gets better as it goes—its maker’s man-of-leisure superego now seems to have full control of his man-of-battle ego. Sure, the Brooklyn-reared MC’s densely packed lyrics are as combative as ever, but after nearly a decade of delivering the same juiced-up, party-thug content, are they really that difficult for him? And is there any reason to tinker with the formula at this point? Hell no. It would be too much work—which is sometimes a good enough reason on its own to quit something.

Not that Jay-Z is going to deliver anything but well-refined product. In the production column, the Neptunes, Timbaland, Eminem, and DJ Quik mingle with heralded upstarts such as Kanye West and Just Blaze. Even Rick Rubin is on the list, and his syncopated, fuzzed-up “99 Problems” might be Jay-Z’s loudest track ever—not to mention proof positive that rap-rock is best handled by people with bona fide skills.

All that talent doesn’t just ensure musical quality control; it also forces Jay-Z to bring every last bit of charisma his 34-year-old-multimillionaire ass can muster. Things don’t start off so hot, though. The Black Album’s first real song, “December 4th,” based on a triumphal but annoying Chi-Lites sample, features Jay slinging autobiographical tales about his early days as a drug dealer. The myth-making becomes excessive when the track turns to snippets of an interview with his mother: “At 4, he taught himself how to ride a bike—a two-wheeler at that. Isn’t that special?” Gloria Carter says proudly. “But…I noticed a change in him when me and my husband broke up.” “I’m a hustler now,” Jay declares before wrapping things up with an epitaph of sorts: “This is the life I chose/Or rather the life that chose me/If you can’t respect that/Your whole perspective is wack/Maybe you’ll love me when I fade to black.”

The over-the-top cocky “What More Can I Say,” with its Gladiator sample and crashing cymbals, fails to push things forward much. Neither does the soulful, by-the-numbers boastful “Encore.” And the throwaway single “Change Clothes” only offers the Neptunes another chance to saturate the airwaves. (Ditto for the ’70s-pop-influenced “Allure,” which slows up the second half of the disc.) It isn’t until Timbaland’s freaky, bottomless “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” that The Black Album shakes its early fixation on splashy sonics and melodramatic gestures. Sure, Jay tosses off a bunch of inspiration-free up-in-the-club couplets—”I’m a hustler, homey/You a customer, crony”—but the quirkiness of Timbo’s groove saves the day.

Jay has the kind of recording budget that allows him to contract out that kind of gem whenever he wants. But he also knows enough to work with an up-and-comer such as 9th Wonder, who produced “Threat” and is one of the disc’s few relative unknowns. The song rides on little more than snapping snares, understated strings and an occasional piano riff, but Jay seizes it for a session of metaphorical violence: “Put that knife in ya/Take a little bit of life from ya/Am I frightenin’ ya?/Shall I continue?/I’ll put the gun to ya/I’ll let it sing you a song/I’ll let it hum to ya/The other one sing along.” Although the verbiage is more simplistic than usual, it works because Jay conveys a slippery combination of menace and fear.

There’s more in-the-moment artistry tucked away near the end of the album, too. On “Lucifer,” West toys with a vocal line from “I Chase the Devil” by old-school reggae star Max Romeo. It’s a boilerplate murder tune, but Jay’s wordplay rises to meet the creativity of the beat: “I can introduce you to your maker/Bring you closer to nature/Ashes after they cremate you/Bastards, hope you been readin’ your psalms and chapters/ Payin’ your tithes, being good Catholics.” And on “My 1st Song,” newcomers Aqua and Joe “3H” Weinberger borrow a woozy blues lick by the obscure ’70s soul act Los Angeles Negros. As Jay once again recounts his rise from the gutter—this time with more gusto—it becomes clear just how weak the first third of The Black Album really is.

Still, even the disc’s early stumblings are an essential part of the legacy: Like any self-respecting Jay Gatsby, Jay-Z knows that the more you repeat your story, the more likely people will absorb it exactly the way you want them to. He hustled; he dealt; he rhymed all night; he got famous. He stayed true to the streets; he ignored the haters; he left with a bang. And he already had his feet in a rich new world. See how easy it is? CP