Release date: November 14, 2003
Credits: Jay Z; various producers
Backstory: Jay Z wanted to go out in style. Coming up in Brooklyn, he’d been the best to take on the drug-dealer-turned-rap mogul since NWA’s Easy E. But he’d put in his time, and, at least according to the marketing material, in 2003 he was going to release one final album and call it quits. He released the album and had a “retirement party” at Madison Square Garden — featuring the Roots as his backup band and appearances by everyone from Beyoncé to Ghostface Killah.
His vision was to build an empire from his Roc-A-Fella records and his RocaWear line of clothes, but that didn’t stop him from making his “final album” a memorable send-off to his career as a rapper. The early concept was to have a different producer for each track, and while that didn’t exactly work out, he still recruited the best the early ’00s had to offer — from Eminem to the Neptunes.
An up-and-coming producer he’d worked with before, a young Chicagoan named Kanye West, came on board and produced two songs, Lucifer and Encore; Timbaland helped him put together Dirt off Your Shoulder; and Rick Rubin, who’d help create modern rap, produced 99 Problems, perhaps the biggest song of his career. His retirement, of course, was short-lived. He was named head of Def Jam records, and spent a few years working on collaborations, until finally releasing a “comeback” album in 2006.
Change of Heart: When the album was first released, Robert Christgau, the Village Voice’s longtime critic, wasn’t impressed. He thought Jay spent too much time self-aggrandizing in his songs, and gave it a one-sentence review “Raps like a legend in his own time — namely, Elvis in Vegas.” But eventually, after seeing Jay grow into the mogul he claimed to be on the album, Christgau saw it in a different light.
“History has vindicated this album,” he later wrote. “On a meticulously hyped valedictory no one believed would be his actual farewell, the fanfares, ovations, maternal reminiscences, and vamp-till-ready shout-outs were overblown at best. But on an album where the biggest rapper of all time announces that he’s the biggest rapper of all time, they’re prophetic.”
99 licensing fees: Though the hook from 99 Problems has become inseparable from Jay Z, it was actually a remake of an Ice-T song from 1993. According to the New Jersey rapper, it was a phrase that his friend, Brother Marquis from 2 Live Crew, had mentioned in passing.
They’d been discussing the hot phrase “Whoop, there it is,” when “outta nowhere he says, I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one. I said, that’s a song. So I made the song, called Marquis up, and he did a verse on it. Chris Rock heard the song, told Rick Rubin J[ay] should remake it, they heard the song, they paid for the publishing, and made the song. Okay.” Ice-T wouldn’t mind, though, if J would be a little more forthcoming with that little fact. “I’d handle the situation differently,” he said.