Was Metallica’s ‘Black Album’ A Sellout Or A Masterpiece?

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In music, the word “sellout” can mean any number of things. It can mean that a band has changed their sound to something more commercially-friendly. It can mean that they allowed one of their songs to be used in an advertisement, or it could just mean that the band is suddenly becoming popular, and fans are upset that it’s not exclusively “their thing” anymore. One album that is consistently referred to as a sellout record is Metallica’s self-titled record, better known as The Black Album, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Aug. 12. Accusations of selling out directed at this record are so ubiquitous that on the Wikipedia entry for the concept of selling out, the album is mentioned as a quintessential example. So, how did the album get this reputation, and is it fair?

When the album was released 25 years ago this week, the reviews were mostly positive, but the diehard fans weren’t having it. They had grown accustomed to the fast, thrash sound that defined their first four albums, and the new direction they were going in did not sit well. “Hardcore fans felt betrayed because they were working with Motley Crue’s producer and there’s a power ballad and it’s so slow,” says Andy O’Connor, a metal writer for sites like Vice and Pitchfork, among many others. As the Black Album‘s medium-tempo, radio-friendly sound graced the ears of fans who discovered the band through Ride The Lightning, there was a growing concern that their favorite band was being lost to the unwashed, hair-metal loving masses.

And sure enough, it was those same masses who made the album such a massive commercial success, as it went on to sell 16 million copies. As O’Connor points out, the Metallica came out ahead in the end. “Metallica gained more new fans than detractors from the Black Album, so it wasn’t much of a concern for them,” O’Connor says. “This was also a lot of people’s first exposure to Metallica, and the first kiss is always the sweetest.”

As much as some fans hated the album when it came out, its reputation is pretty strong these days. It came in at No. 252 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, while Q included it on a list of the best metal albums of all time. So, if the album was so controversial upon its release, why is there such a strong consensus now? As O’Connor observes, it may be because, in the eyes of many, it was the last truly great Metallica album. “Load and Reload (and St. Anger!) were so reviled that it makes the Black Album, whatever you think of it, look good in comparison,” O’Connor says. “Every Metallica album since this one has the air of them catching up, the plague of all innovators. Death Magnetic is almost the worst of the bunch because they were actively trying to go back to their glory days. The Black Album was the last where they were contemporary in their own way.”

There’s also the fact that these songs have held up quite well over the years in pop culture. For nearly two decades, baseball legend Mariano Rivera took the mound with “Enter Sandman” blasting over the loud speakers and Yankees fans never grew tired of it. As O’Connor points out, several other tracks have not only held up but have gone on to become standard bearers in metal. ” ‘Sad But True’ predicted where metal would go in the ’90s but was much smarter and more forceful, ‘The Unforgiven’ was in the tradition of their ‘ballads’ like ‘Fade to Black’ that weren’t sappy as sh*t but carried a lot of resonance, ‘Nothing Else Matters’ proves sap ain’t all that bad anyway, “Of Wolf And Man” is still vicious, and say what you will about Lars, that military snare in ‘The Struggle Within’ is still righteous,” O’Connor says. Indeed, this is one of those albums like Led Zeppelin IV or Back In Black, where the songs are so present in our culture that the concept of a “deep cut” is null and void. All of these songs are familiar to millions, and the majority of them sound pretty good.

So, is the Black Album a sellout move, or an all-time metal classic? The most likely answer is both. On one hand, the album introduced Metallica to a wider audience, and in the process, softened a bit of their thrash edge. On the other hand, it’s an album that features banger after banger, and in spite of endless airplay courtesy of the “Mandatory Metallica” gimmick that seemingly every rock radio station used to employ, very few of these songs have grown tiresome. Despite being a commercial move, the Black Album was ultimately a massive victory for Metallica, and proof that sometimes, selling out doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world.