Jay-Z’s ‘Black Album’ Reconsidered

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dodai stewart

Hi, Reggie.

reggie ugwu

Hi, Dodai. How are you?

dodai stewart

I’m doing well. How are you?

reggie ugwu

I’m doing all right. It’s nice to meet you.

dodai stewart

I know. I feel like we’ve emailed.

reggie ugwu

Yes.

dodai stewart

But we never actually —

reggie ugwu

Yes, email.

dodai stewart

— saw face-to-face, I don’t think. Did we?

reggie ugwu

No, never face-to-face.

dodai stewart

We didn’t. Yeah, OK.

reggie ugwu

Long-time reader of your work.

dodai stewart

Oh, that’s nice. Thank you. That’s like, you’re old.

reggie ugwu

[LAUGHS]

dodai stewart

[LAUGHS]

reggie ugwu

Not at all.

dodai stewart

I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding. So, Reggie, you’re a Times culture reporter. Usually, you’re writing about new music. But I hear you’ve been rethinking a classic from 2003, Jay-Z’s “Black Album.” What is that about?

reggie ugwu

Yeah, so I’ve been thinking about it, because when that album came out in 2003, I was a senior in high school. And it really took over my life. It became the soundtrack of my life.

[music – jay-z, “lucifer”]

woman (rapping)

Lucifer, son of the morning! I’m gonna chase you out of earth.

reggie ugwu

I connected to it so deeply, and the message of that record.

jay-z (rapping)

I’m from the murder capital, where we murder for capital.

reggie ugwu

I started thinking about that recently in light of last year and what was going on during the pandemic and the protests in response to the death of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And it made me revisit that time in my life when I was younger. And I felt like some of the messaging that I was getting from that album and some of the things that I internalized at that age were a little incomplete. There was something that was missing from my understanding of how the world worked and my place in it.

dodai stewart

Yeah, so let’s talk about this, like set a scene for young Reggie. What were you doing? Where were you living?

reggie ugwu

Yeah, so I grew up in the suburbs of Houston in a suburb called Clear Lake. Both of my parents are immigrants from Nigeria. And my siblings and I grew up under the shadow of this fantastical journey that my parents had gone on from those villages to the suburbs in America and, eventually, the middle class. The thing that they drilled into us as kids was education and hard work. A’s were the expectation, and B’s were the floor. Anything less than that was unthinkable.

dodai stewart

Right.

reggie ugwu

We had these rules that we had to kind of live by where we were always respectful of our elders, and we didn’t really mess around with the opposite sex, and we didn’t stay out too late. I would go to my friends’ houses. Most of my friends were white, and most of the kids in our neighborhood were white. And it was very clear that they weren’t being held to the same standard, Dodai.

[LAUGHS]

So I would see that, and I would complain about it when I was younger to my parents.

dodai stewart

[LAUGHS] Were you jealous?

reggie ugwu

Yeah, I was jealous. I was like, wait a minute. What’s going on here? Like, how come I have to do all these things? Like, Matt doesn’t have to say “sir” and “madam.” Colin gets to stay out late. And what I would hear back from them is, you don’t get to do what the other kids do. You are not the same as them. The world sees you differently.

dodai stewart

Right, right. So clean teen Reggie —

reggie ugwu

Ha, ha, ha.

dodai stewart

— coming from this immigrant, high-achieving family, did you have a vision of what you were going to be when you grew up?

reggie ugwu

Yeah, I remember thinking about that from a very young age. Even when I was a little kid, I wanted to be a chemist and work with — in a lab coat. I guess that was the primary job requirement that I thought of was working in a lab coat and potentially blowing things up.

dodai stewart

That sounds fun.

reggie ugwu

That kind of stuck or came back around really in my high school years. And I decided that I would take my love of sciences and become a pharmacist and that that would be a good job. I would make good money. I would add some cachet to it. The end goal was some kind of successful professional job. And I really kind of saw myself as being on a mission.

dodai stewart

So when are you listening to Jay-Z? When are you having any fun?

reggie ugwu

Yeah, I mean, we had some fun. Houston is like the epicenter of suburban sprawl, and so it’s a big car culture. And I would drive around in my car, which was this ‘98 Nissan Altima. And that’s where I’d listen to music.

dodai stewart

I grew up in Manhattan and never owned a car. I still have never owned a car, so it’s very exotic to me that you were driving around. So which of Jay-Z’s songs were your first introduction to him?

reggie ugwu

I remember the first song — Jay-Z songs that I was really obsessed with were “Money Ain’t A Thang” and “Big Pimpin’” —

[music – jermaine dupri/jay-z, “money ain’t a thang”]

jay-z and jermaine dupri (rapping)

Money ain’t a thing. Bubble hard in the double R, flashing the rings. With the window cracked, holler back, money ain’t a thing.

reggie ugwu

— both of which came out in the Volume 2 — “Hard Knock Life.”

dodai stewart

And what were the things that he was rapping about that spoke to you?

reggie ugwu

Well, you can kind of hear in the title, “Money Ain’t a Thing” and “Big Pimpin.’” I was around 11 at that time, 11 or 12, and that just seemed like the life. That seemed like it.

[music – jay-z, “big pimpin'”]

dodai stewart

Had you seen the “Big Pimpin’” video?

reggie ugwu

Of course, yes. They’re shaking the champagne. I think it was Cristal champagne that they were spraying on a —

dodai stewart

On a yacht.

reggie ugwu

On the yacht, on the boats with the girls in the bikinis. That was, like, the pinnacle. That was like amazing.

jay-z (rapping)

We doing big pimpin’. We spending Gs. Check ‘em out now.

dodai stewart

OK, so Jay-Z has all these huge hits. And then a couple of years later, “The Black Album” comes out. And what was your reaction to that?

reggie ugwu

I had never really heard anything quite like it. Jay-Z was on a mission as well. He had decided that he was going to retire. And so he had done this thing that was, I think, unprecedented really, and for an artist of his stature, certainly in hip hop, where he was — had announced that he’s retiring, and this was going to be his swan song. And not only was it going to be his swan song, but it was explicitly engineered to establish him at a certain place in the rap canon.

dodai stewart

And how did that make you feel? It wasn’t champagne on a yacht, really.

reggie ugwu

It really grabbed me. It really struck me because he was talking in a different way on that record. He was talking in a more personal way. The first song, “December 4th,” is extremely autobiographical. He’s basically dueting with his mom —

[music – jay-z, “december 4th”]

gloria carter (rapping)

Shawn Carter was born December 4th.

reggie ugwu

— who kind of like tells the story of his life in a way that I had never heard before. And he kind of makes the case for himself as the best that hip-hop has yet produced.

jay-z (rapping)

They say they never really miss you till you dead or you gone. So on that note, I’m leaving after the song.

reggie ugwu

It wasn’t just the partying. It was also a sense of ambition and drive, which was exactly what I felt at that point in my life.

dodai stewart

And were there specific lyrics or bars that just stuck with you and grabbed you?

reggie ugwu

Yeah, I remember there is a line, and I think it’s a “Moment of Clarity.”

[music – jay-z, “moment of clarity”]

jay-z (rapping)

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars.

reggie ugwu

He says that he dumbed things down for his audience to double his dollars.

dodai stewart

Oh, my goodness.

reggie ugwu

He says, “Truthfully, I want to rhyme like Common Sense (But I did 5 mil). I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” And what he’s saying there is, I would rhyme like Common, who is this rapper who is known for his lyricism and his introspection and his consciousness. But he made $5 million. Right? He had some success. He tasted what a hit could do for him, like a “Big Pimpin.’” And he hasn’t been rhyming like Common since.

It was the level of shrewdness that was like he has these gifts. He can go in a number of different directions. But he focused and went in a very specific direction that was going to get him to where he wanted to be, which was 5 mil and beyond in the penthouse suite.

jay-z (rapping)

And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them. So I got rich and gave back. To me that’s the win-win.

reggie ugwu

It really resonated with me because I felt like I needed to really focus and go in the right direction that was going to get me to that professional job and that big house, and the nice car. That was really important to me at that point in my life.

dodai stewart

So you took his being shrewd and calculating as a suggestion that you should also be shrewd and calculating.

reggie ugwu

Exactly. It was like, this is what it takes. I was kind of taking notes, like, how could I do the same? What was my version of Jay-Z’s shrewdness?

dodai stewart

But I guess what I’m wondering is, his kind of like, from the hood to Hollywood is not exactly the same path that you were on —

reggie ugwu

No.

dodai stewart

— seeing as how you were already an honors student. And you’re not in the hood.

reggie ugwu

No, yeah.

dodai stewart

But you still found that relatable.

reggie ugwu

Well, that’s kind of the master stroke of hip-hop, right? It perfectly details this kind of a rags-to-riches idea which is so foundational to, I think, the American dream. And anyone from any background can relate to that feeling or that desire to reach the mountaintop.

And Jay came from the hood. My parents moved mountains to make it to the middle class in the suburbs. And it’s one thing to look at your parents and be inspired by what they do. But if you can look at someone as glamorous as Jay-Z, that’s kind of the more fun model if you’re a 18-year-old boy, I think.

dodai stewart

Yeah.

reggie ugwu

I mean, I think there is something. That idea that you could do that, that you could, by virtue of your own talent, by virtue of your own words — I was a budding writer who didn’t really know that that’s what I was going to do at that point. I still thought I was going to be a chemist of some sort.

But I think internally I knew that — or I was drawn to this idea of writing, this idea that you could communicate in such a sharp and penetrating way that no one would be able to deny you, and that you could do that as a Black person. Right? I mean, this is what Black excellence is about. That as a Black person in this country facing so many different disadvantages, that even in the face of all this darkness that you are going to shine.

And I think Jay-Z as a rapper, really more than anyone, kind of internalized and embodied those ideals — like that’s his gospel. Like, I’m going to continually raise the bar, whether it’s artistically, or professionally, or financially or even romantically.

dodai stewart

[LAUGHS] Yeah, and he actually says, “Best rapper alive. Ask about me.” Wait.

reggie ugwu

Ask about it. Ask about me.

dodai stewart

Ask about me.

reggie ugwu

Yeah.

[music – jay-z, “dirt off your shoulder”]

jay-z (rapping)

I dropped that “Black Album.” Then I backed out it as the best rapper alive. You could ask about me.

dodai stewart

And at some point, your relationship to this album has changed. I mean, you’re no longer a teenager in a Nissan Altima. Do you still feel the same way about this album? Or how do you feel about the music now, and the lyrics especially?

reggie ugwu

I think the thing that’s changed for me is now I’m more inclined to look at the system itself. Jay-Z put forward his own life story and his own example as a model. And I think that is fine to aspire to — and it’s what I aspired to. But it sort of elides the fact that maybe the system that you are doing battle with could change.

dodai stewart

Mm. I think that being Black in America, sometimes there are things that dawn on you later. And it’s a journey. And you don’t understand everything that’s going on as a teenager the way you do when you’re older.

reggie ugwu

Yeah, completely. Thinking about last summer and seeing all the people that were calling for these big changes to how our society works, and how policing works, and how our corporate institutions work, I wish there had been more of a cultural conversation to help me understand that that double standard that I was held to as a teenager and as a young man was not OK. You know?

dodai stewart

Right.

reggie ugwu

That that came from a deep flaw in our society that has created these persistent inequalities and injustices. And yeah, it’s OK to hold yourself to a higher standard and to want to achieve great things. But why do we have to have this world where only the Jay-Zs, only the Barack Obamas, only the Oprah Winfreys are the ones who make it to the top?

Why can’t you just be a regular person pursuing their dreams and be able to do that without threat of death or poverty? That’s the missing piece that I think I didn’t quite get when I was in high school. Chris Rock actually has a really great bit about this.

archived recording (chris rock)

My house cost millions of dollars.

reggie ugwu

He talks about the neighborhood that he lives in in New Jersey and how he — it’s an incredibly wealthy neighborhood. His house cost millions of dollars. And there are only a few Black people in the neighborhood. And those Black people are like Mary J. Blige, Eddie Murphy, Jay-Z and himself. And his neighbor is a white guy who is a dentist.

archived recording (chris rock)

He ain’t the best dentist in the world.

reggie ugwu

So to get into this neighborhood, they had to be the best in the world at what they do. And this white guy down the block, he’s just a dentist, and he’s not even the best dentist.

dodai stewart

[LAUGHS]

archived recording (chris rock)

See, the Black man gotta fly to get something that the white man could walk to.

dodai stewart

OK, so you didn’t become a pharmacist or a dentist, for that matter. But do you have any regrets about the path you pursued?

reggie ugwu

No. Because it wasn’t right for me. And that’s what I was missing in all those years when I was very narrowly focused in deciding on what the rest of my life was going to be at 17 — was, hey, there’s more to life than just doing what you think is going to get you the fancy job and the cash and the house. You have to find out who you are as a person. I did get to know myself a little better. I got to come into my own and realize that I’m a writer, and that’s what I love to do, and it wasn’t until I put away pharmacy that I — until I started to write and I started to pursue that as a career path. And thank God that I did.

dodai stewart

Reggie, this was fun. Thank you so much.

reggie ugwu

Thank you, Dodai. It was really fun going down memory lane with you.

dodai stewart

All the way back to the yacht and the champagne.

reggie ugwu

Oh, my god, yes. Take me there now.

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