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Jay-Z vs. Retirement

Amid buzz about Hov one day returning to the rap game, Boardroom examines what it would take to get the Marcy legend to deliver another album.

In 2003, fresh off The Black Album and still just 33 years old, Shawn Corey Carter decided he was done with the rap game. Presented as his official “retirement party,” he decided to hold one of the craziest charity concerts quite possibly of all-time at Madison Square Garden.

The lyrics from “Encore” had been manifested — “From Marcy to Madison Square.” The fittingly extravagant sendoff, well-captured in the documentary film Fade to Black, was seemingly the perfect culminating moment for the singular career of Jay-Z, a rapper who had developed a constant knack for making big statements.

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But in reality, as we found out earlier this month on Season 2, Episode 2 of Kevin Hart’s Hart to Heart interview show, Hov still isn’t actually done nearly two decades after The Black Album. He simply burnt out.

“I was really burnt out that time. I was releasing an album every year — ’96, ’97, ’98. And then in between that, soundtracks, other people’s albums, Roc-A-Fella, touring back-to-back,” Jay recalled.

“And you know, I just looked up one day and I was like, ‘I’m tired,’” he continued. “I had never been on a vacation until, like, I want to say 2000. Like, my whole life. And I was just really burnt out at that moment.”

Still, maybe we should have known he was just taking a page out of Michael Jordan’s pump-fake retirement book (When I come back like Jordan/Wearing the 4-5″).

In conversation with Hart, the 24-time Grammy Award winner spoke about everything from his journey as a street hustler to becoming a global brand and mogul. And while the conversation was meant to be wide-ranging, fans ultimately came to seize upon the one thing they really wanted to know: Are we going to get new music from the self-proclaimed God MC, or is Jay-Z retired?

Mr. Carter immediately confirmed he did not have plans to leave music “officially” in any way — ever:

“I don’t know what happens next. I’m not actively making music, or making an album or have plans to make an album, but I never wanna say I’m retired. It’s a gift, and who am I to shut it off?”

After Jay’s initial retirement post-The Black Album, it would take merely three years for the Brooklyn-bred rapper turned mogul — he became CEO of Def Jam during this retirement period — to return with 2006’s Kingdom Come, not a particularly long break at all. (Especially considering that he had two different collaborative projects, Collision Course with Linkin Park and Unfinished Business with R. Kelly, release in ’04.)

His last studio effort remains the 2018 Beyoncé team-up Everything is Love, but as he made clear to Hart, Hov isn’t even remotely entertaining walking away. Rather he made a point to Hart of leaving things open-ended — and that’s why Boardroom is here to attempt to fill in the blanks with regards to what could be next.

Let’s examine where Jay-Z may go as a proper follow-up to his last solo LP, 2017’s 4:44 , which notably marked its five-year anniversary on June 30.

Collaborative Album with Pharrell

In April, Pusha T dropped his latest album, It’s Almost Dry. As the story goes, the record was originally devised as a direct follow-up to 2018’s Daytona, which was fully produced by Kanye West. Ye was once again tapped to take the reins on the production side of things. The duo turned around and cooked up what was intended to be the entire album.

That is, until Pharrell got wind of King Push working on a project. The latter invited the former to listen to his and Ye’s work in its current form.

What would come next ended up being both wild and unprecedented.

Pharrell allegedly told Push he thought the project could be better, and that he wanted to take a shot at contributing some beats. Months later, a half Ye-produced/half Pharrell-produced album would coalesce as It’s Almost Dry.

It’s well-known that Pusha T, a Virginia-bred veteran, approaches his art like a gangster. A mafioso. A Hollywood antagonist. In an interview with GQ, he revealed that he and Pharrell would spend days at a time together working on the album while Todd Phillips’ Joker played in the background . And while Pharrell provided Pusha with the larger-than-life canvas he needed to fully embody the villainous character he envisioned, he also enabled a more freewheeling spirit, as captured in songs like the classic-sounding “Open Air,” the menacing “Call My Bluff,” and — of course — a special guest appearance on “Neck & Wrist,” the track Push himself calls GOAT, from Jay-Z.

This is all to make one specific point: Jay-Z attacked that “Neck & Wrist” beat, which makes me think that he and Pharrell ought to entertain the idea of a collaborative project.

The two already have a healthy history of working together dating back to the 2000 album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. At that time, Pharrell was best known for tag-teaming hits with fellow producer Chad Hugo as The Neptunes; the duo went on to produce multiple tracks on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2 (2002) and The Black Album (2003). Pharrell also contributed to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne (2011) and Hov’s Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013).

Notably, the Neptunes helped Jay bring home classics like the crazy-funky “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” still one of the rapper’s top-performing singles to date. Where is it written that “Neck & Wrist” has to be a bookend to this brilliant creative collaboration? It makes all the sense in the world for them to run it back.

“Get you bling like the Neptune sound,” indeed.

They say Ma$e put Kanye, Just Blaze and The Neptunes on, but Jay popularized them each on a different level.

In the 22 years since The Dynasty, Jay and Pharrell have come together to give the world even more classic songs, from radio hits and block bangers like the smooth “Excuse Me Miss” to the celebratory club anthem “La-La-La” and even the out-of-left-field, James Brown-enhanced “Gotta Have It.”

Suffice to say that Jay and Pharrell already have unmatched chemistry. We shouldn’t be surprised if one calls up the other up one day feeling particularly inspired and says, “meet me at the stu!”

Everything Is Love 2 Studio Album by “The Carters”

Until recently, Jay-Z and Beyoncé had cultivated personas that truly felt larger than life—the kind we truly kinda knew little-to-nothing about, all buffered by fanbases merrily veering into cults of personality. Jay had carefully crafted this narrative of corner-hustler-turned-corporate-CEO. Bey, meanwhile, is the perfectly crafted pop star who built an empire on turning pain into empowerment.

Lemonade and 4:44 were watershed moments because they offered a glimpse of the more vulnerable traits of the mystical married artists behind them. But it was when they came together in 2018 that the puzzle pieces came together in full view.

“The Carters” zoomed in close enough to show the cracks— we hear a man struggling to deal with his transgressions and a woman searching for clarity at the time of her life that she was allowed —allowed us to see them as humans for the first time and make deeper connections to the performers and their flaws.

Their surprise joint studio release, Everything Is Love, completed the arc. It was a testament to years of working through their problems both publicly and privately, and how a complicated love could survive through it all.

And although the project received a seemingly underwhelming response on a !!!JAY-Z AND BEYONCE!!! standard, that was more a product of the gift and the curse of a surprise album, as it came not just out of nowhere, but during a cluttered music release period in 2017.

Nonetheless, The Carters’ third episode of a presumed trilogy packages truth in a way that makes it more captivating than any of the previous iterations. And it sets the stage for an amazing follow-up if they’d care to make it so.

Watch the Throne 2: Jay-Z & Ye

In August 2021, towards the end of the first Donda album listening session at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a familiar voice appeared on the last song Ye would play that evening.

Mr. Carter’s, of course.

Ye surprised attendees by unveiling a new collaboration with Jay entitled “Jail.” On the track, Hov references their collaborative Watch The Throne album directly, rapping:

“Hol’ up, Donda, I’m with your baby when I touch back road, Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home’ / Not me with all of these sins, casting stones. This might be the return of The Throne (Throne).”

As the story goes, Ye, who was occupying and living in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as he recorded what became his 10th studio album (for a whopping $1 million a day, reportedly), apparently looked at the clock at exactly 4:44 one very late or very early morning. This was a sign to him, per longtime mixing and audio engineering partner Mike Dean, such that Ye decided to call Jay-Z and ask him to come record a verse. The rest is “Jail” history.

Let’s rewind for a moment — after an appearance on Kanye’s 2010 LP My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Jay and Kanye brought their massive egos together for a full record with Watch the Throne the following year. The result was an album with plenty of swagger, tempered with a little self-consciousness here and there. Lyrics and message aside, the album had its share of hits, from “Otis” and “No Church in the Wild” to “Ni**as in Paris,” the last of which can take credit for (1) making “cray” a thing and (2) bringing back random audio clips from the “classic” film Blades of Glory.

For good measure, was Jay’s 12th album to reach No. 1 on the charts.

We needed to go back in time for a moment here because, despite his estrangement from Jay-Z at the time, Ye did tease another Throne album as recently as 2018. Two years prior, 2016, West had said out of frustration and in a seemingly manic moment that“there will never be a Watch the Throne 2,” pointing to issues between Jay’s TIDAL and Ye’s favored-at-the-time Apple Music.

Then again, not long after their surprise “Jail” reconciliation internet personality and Revolt host Justin Laboy, who has been handling Kanye-related communications and social since last year, tweeted:

“Watch The Throne 2 coming end of the year. Kanye & Hov about to make history AGAIN.”

Added Laboy: “YES. HOV & YE back building again. They both rich enough to quit rapping, but the passion they share of making the fans happy got them back working.”

This breadcrumb trail didn’t end up leading to anything after Donda officially released two weeks later, and that’s just about where we are with the Watch the Throne 2 saga today. But if we know anything about Ye and Jay’s big-little brother relationship, it’s that the love between the two can never die.

And after their most recent one-off collaboration, there’s no reason that the clock can’t strike 4:44 again.

The Ever-elusive Jay-Z vs. Nas Album

Jay-Z and Nas are rightly considered two of the great luminaries in the history of the hip-hop genre. But before they came to show each other favor, they had a long and contentious history with one another. As the story goes, the beef dates back to 1996 when Nas reportedly failed to show up to a recording session for Jay-Z’s track ”Bring It On” for his debut studio album, Reasonable Doubt.

From there, the jabs began to fly. Jay sampled Nas’ voice on his ’96 hit “Dead Presidents II,” but the subliminal became the explicit in 2001’s “Takeover,” when Jay went straight at Queens natives Nas and Mobb Deep.

At the 2001 Hot 97 Summer Jam, Jay flexed crazy at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, bringing out Michael Jackson and ridiculing Mobb Deep’s Prodigy. Suffice to say that this did not go over well with a fellow Queensbridge phenom, who responded publicly and viciously with easily one of the greatest diss tracks off all time, “Ether.” Jay would respond with “Supa Ugly” in late 2001 and “Blueprint 2” in 2002.

The two went back and forth with bars and barbs until they publicly began to resolve their issues on the New Jersey stop of the I Declare War Tour. After a few years of what felt like little more than a ceasefire, the pair would officially squash the beef in 2005. Nas would eventually leave Columbia to sign with Def Jam while Jay-Z served as CEO, which led to them finally appearing on their first collaborative song for “Black Republican” off Nas’ Hip-Hop is Dead album.

Jay and Nas have since appeared on tracks together on several occasions, including Magna Carta Holy Grail’s “BBC,” the DJ Khaled collaboration “Sorry Not Sorry,” and “Bath Salts” from the posthumous DMX album Exodus. That brings us up to speed, but notably, the two have teased putting out more work together over the years.

There was a span of at least a decade during which it would have been miraculous to witness a team-up between these two outer-borough icons, but these days, things are just different. Recently, Hov even took to TIDAL to unveil an exclusive playlist he’d curated as a 24-track homage to Nas. And though it’s still difficult to imagine Jay and Nas totally locking in for a full-length collaborative project, crazier things have happened.

With a shared history and a love/hate relationship nearly peerless in the annals of hip-hop, it’s not so far-fetched to think that one day, Marcy and Queensbridge could come together for the ultimate crossover event.

The Next 4:44

I remember after Jay-Z released 4:44, his 13th studio album, he began dropping video footnotes on Tidal for a number of the tracks. I specifically recall seeing the footnote for intro track “Kill Jay-Z” and being heavily impacted hearing Hov and famous Black men like Chris Rock, Michael Che, Anthony Anderson, Trevor Noah, and Van Jones speak so candidly about their own emotions and struggles reckoning with their public image.

As the video asks, “How has your EGO helped you and how has your EGO hurt you?”

In response to why Jay-Z literally says the words “Kill Jay-Z” in the song, he explained:

“It’s really about the ego, it’s about killing off the ego so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty. Jay-Z, the public persona couldn’t have this conversation— he has to be eliminated, he has to be moved, so it’s really about Shawn Carter speaking to Jay-Z and he has to convince [him] to move aside. All that to say, Jay-Z may never return as ‘Jay-Z.'”

Back in 2009, Hov declared the Death of Auto-Tune onThe Blueprint 3’s first single, “D.O.A.,” drawing a line in the sand about the state of rap and where it should be going, all while hoping to peel back his own layers in ways he hadn’t before. On 4:44 nearly 10 years later, Jay “died” in order to reveal still-harder truths about who Shawn Carter was.

The personal evolution was real. But one thing that’s never changed is Jay-Z’s preference for making big statements.

In 2020, the ego death tour continued as Hov surprisingly appeared on almost every song on Jay Electronica’s long-awaited debut studio album, A Written Testimony, contributing uncredited vocals.“From a hard place and a rock to the Roc Nation of Islam, I emerged on the wave that Tidal made to drop bombs,” Electronica rapped on “Ghost of Soulja Slim” with a nod to the hip-hop titan.

All this self-reflection has delivered Jay-Z to a place in which he’s now far more deliberate about when, how, and with whom he’s picking the mic back up. Even who he’ll clear samples for. It’s part and parcel to the beauty and the madness of coming to grips with his own reality.

A deeply personal album like 4:44 is a testimony to there being no timeline for growth and no age limit for hip-hop. That sure felt like the gist of his conversation with Kevin Hart, too. Perhaps it’s the defining element of this peculiar and unprecedented stage of his music career — and his next musical project, whatever and however that may be.

But who knows maybe he’ll run one with protege-turned-rival, Drake, or he’ll find the next best band, like Turnstile, given his love of Rock and history with groups similar. Or maybe even do something with a young star like 26ar, one of Brookyln’s finest up-and-coming rappers, who Jay actually spoke to in a Twitter space.

Now 52 years of age, Jay-Z is embracing his personal evolution in his most honest, come-as-it-may manner yet, embracing challenging conversations with himself and those closest to him, spending most of time with his kids, and working on his relationship with Beyoncé. Over a dozen studio albums, one retirement, and a few decades deep into his career, Hov still has it. As a matter of fact, he never lost it. And his gift isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

When it pops back out of the shadows to reveal itself for an encore, you’ll still love it — and at this point in the game, we know it’s not fading to black.

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