Without trying very hard, you can imagine the entire song in your head, layering piece by piece. The abrupt static signaling the break in our regular scheduled programming. The slow, defiant piano keys rumbling like tremors under the ground, cracking the surface. The ominous voice of Just Blaze echoing over the beat as if he were directing us inside to duck and cover.
“Public Service Announcement” by JAY-Z wasn’t an ordinary interlude; it was a fucking earthquake.
JAY-Z’s career, for the most part, has functioned much like that of an NBA player; more specifically, Michael Jordan. More than any other rapper, the accomplishments in Jay’s career have always felt like boxes checked on a Hall of Fame resume, and fans and critics alike have often argued for and against his title as the best rapper of all-time in much the same way a Twitter argument will unfold debating MJ and LeBron. It’s a fascinating argument to have, and JAY-Z’s body of work has always fueled the argument in the way his career has played out. His best albums (Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint) feel like championships, his worst (Kingdom Come, The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse) feel like early playoff exits, and his best songs (“Dead Presidents ll,” “Can I Live,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”, etc.) feel like MVP seasons in and of themselves. Like Jordan, Hov’s career has always felt otherworldly. Not only his music, but his business ventures as well. Jay was an icon from the minute his career began—he also just happened to rap better than almost anyone ever.
Also, in the same vein as Jordan, JAY-Z’s career is best remembered in moments; the first listen of Reasonable Doubt, the opening “You’re now tuned into the motherfuckin' greatest” on “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” or the jovial unexpected greatness that is “Big Pimpin'.” We collectively placed Jay on a pedestal he has never left—no matter how many disappointing projects have followed the prime of his career—because of how well he captured our hearts and minds in those particular moments. At his best, JAY-Z didn’t have to be like Mike; he was Mike.
However, every great career is defined by a signature shot; the point in time where we were all watching, anticipating greatness only to be overwhelmed when that greatness was more than we could’ve ever imagined. For Michael Jordan, that moment came in the 1998 NBA Finals, when he secured his sixth and final championship after crossing up and nailing a jump shot over Byron Russell. "The shot" cemented Jordan's entire legacy for—*checks watch*—eternity. For JAY-Z, that moment came on “Public Service Announcement.”
Calling “PSA” an “interlude” is a pejorative connotation at this point. An interlude implies a moment of rest within in the course of the album, and “PSA” accomplishes the exact opposite. It’s a monster under your bed type of track, waiting patiently for its moment to strike, and you can feel in the first half of The Black Album that Jay is building to that unencumbered peak.
Throughout his career, Hov has always employed certain producers to convey certain feelings. He used DJ Premier for his grittiest, mafioso moments that made us feel like Al Capone himself could spit a few bars. Timbaland’s services were needed when Jay wanted something contrarian to juxtapose the rest of his album. Kanye was there for Jay when he embraced his more sinful qualities and just needed us to know we couldn’t touch him lyrically. On “PSA,” though, Jay needed a triumphant moment like no other; a two-minute encapsulation of his entire career over a haunting piano and pulverizing drums. In essence, JAY-Z needed one final, memorable shot to cement his “retirement” from rap, and Just Blaze captured exactly that.
“PSA” doesn’t work as a song just because of the production, though. In fact, for as incredible as Jay's ear has always been for timely production over the years, his best moments became his best moments because of his conscious efforts to mold his lyrics into those respective sounds perfectly. The sluggish, jazz-infused brilliance of “Can I Live”’s production would be wasted without the declarative kingpin character, almost bored with how luxurious his life is, that Jay captures. The self-reflective “fuck you” that surrounds his verse on “Renegade” meshes perfectly with the duality of Eminem’s earnestness and evil reflected in both his lyrics and production. In the case of “PSA,” Jay’s brilliance lies in each of his reminders of how much better he is in life at everything compared to us.
“Allow me to reintroduce myself,” as an iconic opening line, always felt misleading in terms of contextualizing “PSA” as a song, because it isn’t a reintroduction in any sense. With lyrics like, “Flyer than the piece of paper bearing my name / got the hottest chick in the game, wearing my chain,” and “I’m like Che Guevera with bling on, I’m complex,” the track functions much more like a hall of fame induction speech. The song’s first verse specifically, punchline-heavy and reveling in the notoriety of lines like “Shoot at you actors like movie directors,” is a declarative separation of one artist from everyone around him. Much like Jordan with basketball, Jay’s career has always been littered with moments that allowed fans to see just how much better he was at rap than anyone else around him, and “PSA” was the last of those moments he ever needed.
“PSA” was never a reintroduction; it was a wave goodbye to the fans and critics as he walked off the court.
Ironically, looking back on the song 14 years later, “PSA” functions much like a eulogy. The Black Album obviously didn't turn out to be the retirement album that we assumed it was at the time, but there was an iteration of Jay that was left behind. After The Black Album, and more specifically, “PSA,” rap needed JAY-Z a lot more than he needed rap, and him closing the song with “Either love me, or leave me alone” proved exactly that.
At some point, the greatest participants in all walks of life no longer have anything left to prove. They've won enough titles or released enough classic albums and the opinions of us mere mortals no longer affect them. Lyrics like, “Check out my swag yo, I walk like a ballplayer / No matter where you go, you are what you are player,” feel even more powerful and insightful now when reflecting on Jay’s career, and his upcoming 4:44 album at the end of this week.
“PSA” was, and is, a lot of things at once. We will remember it because it was the point in which JAY-Z had nothing left to prove to us as a rapper. It’s a monumental rap record, from a larger than life rapper, in which he needed under three minutes to reach his peak form. However, it's also a version of JAY-Z that fans should stop waiting to hear from. For all we know, 4:44 may be an incredible album of nuance and creativity that the last decade of Jay’s music has lacked. Yet, even if it isn’t, his accomplishments remain the same. We don’t remember the greats for their mistakes, but for what they accomplished in the biggest moments when we were all watching.
In his biggest moment, JAY-Z gave us “PSA”; a game-winning shot, and his finest moment.