By Neil Drumming
Updated November 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

From Ron O’Neal’s desperate deal in ”Superfly” to De Niro’s high-risk heist in ”Heat,” pimp-gangsta-mack lore is littered with last scores, tall tales of outlaws trying to pull off one final elegant scam before they escape the game forever. So it’s no shock that Jay-Z, who has taken great pains over the past seven years and nine studio albums to convince us that he is the quintessential hustler, would eventually seek a memorable exit. The much-touted ”Black Album” is to be Jigga’s last, his career-ending gambit. For most hustlers, there are excellent reasons — like the specter of jail or death — to get out. Why Jay-Z, currently neck-deep in wealth, women, and fame, would want to give up a lucrative life of rhyme is another story.

If we’re to take him at his word, he’s simply quitting while ahead: ”Jay’s status appears to be at an all-time high,” he raps over beatmeister Kanye West’s mournful horns on ”Encore,” ”The perfect time to say goodbye.” Though delivered like boasts, the lines hint at Jay-Z’s fear — fear of losing the limelight to encroaching upstarts like 50 Cent or, worse, to 50’s racially more-marketable captain, Eminem. When, on the syrupy ”What More Can I Say,” Jay-Z whines, ”I supposed to be number one on everybody’s list/Let’s see what happens when I no longer exist,” it’s not hard to figure out who he’s scowling up the charts at.

In truth, Jay has little reason to be intimidated — at least in terms of talent. Obviously influenced by 50 Cent’s crowd-pleasing nonchalance, Jay slickly incorporates that attitude into his own slow flow on ”Threat,” while cranking up the comedy: ”I put the boy in the box like David Blaine/Let the audience watch, it ain’t a thang.” And he proves he can wax as melodramatic and victimized as Eminem on ”Moment of Clarity,” a bitter, dirgelike ”Lose Yourself” retread produced by Eminem himself. ”I dumb down for my audience to double my dollars,” Jay-Z spits haughtily. ”They criticize me for it, yet they all yell ‘Holla!’/If skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.”

The confession, while clever, is ultimately a drag. The fact is, Jay-Z has always been in it for the money. Though he has mastered the grit and detail of the crime story, he hasn’t demonstrated ambitions to do anything else. ”I got a hustler’s spirit, nigga, period,” he states on ”Public Service Announcement (Interlude).” Despite sonic standouts like ”99 Problems,” a hair-raising rock hybrid courtesy of Rick Rubin, or Kanye West’s reggae romp ”Lucifer,” ”The Black Album”’s bling-bang reportage mostly rings redundant.

Like the best blaxploitation heroes, Jay-Z, upon exiting, triumphantly flips off the Man — in this case, ”rap critics that say, ‘He’s money, cash, ho’s.”’ But backing out the door with the loot in his hand screaming ”F — – critics” only gives his detractors more credence. On ”Allure,” he actually cops to the con: ”It ain’t even fun no more, I’m jaded/Man, it’s just a game, I just play it to play it.” If that’s the case, well hell, maybe it’s better to let him go.