By Gary Suarez
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.
Yet 2003 didn’t exactly belong to Shawn Carter, certainly not prior to The Black Album’s November release. Some nine months earlier, 50 Cent’s highly anticipated Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ debuted with robust first week sales bolstered by hype-generating pre-release hits “In Da Club” and “Wanksta.” Having survived an attempt on his life a couple years earlier, the Queens rapper made a name for himself and his G-Unit crew on the mixtape circuit, securing backing and a seven-figure record deal from heavy hitters Dr. Dre and Eminem. With Get Rich Or Die Tryin’s album’s sales reaching platinum-certified status six times over by year’s end, the wise decision to quickly release G-Unit’s Beg For Mercy album added another two million records to that already astounding tally for a new artist.