When you hype your new album as the biggest career comeback since Lazarus and Mariah Carey combined, you better back up your boasts with big beats and even bigger hooks. But alas, as Jay-Z shows on his surprisingly ho-hum Kingdom Come, the recently unretired rapper is much better at goodbyes than hellos.
In 2003, Jay-Z was the greatest rapper in the world, a multiplatinum-selling star with charisma and talent to spare - so he quit. Hip-hop was a young man's game, reasoned the then-33-year-old artist, the rare talent whose cred was as solid on the streets as it was in Middle America. His adieu disc was the thrice-platinum Black Album, a hit-stuffed farewell featuring the Rick Rubin-produced 99 Problems, a pounding marriage of thunderous beats and lightning-quick social commentary.
Despite please-don't-go protestations from his fans, the Brooklyn native shelved his mike and pulled on a suit, becoming the CEO and president of Def Jam Recordings. Although he hinted at a Michael Jordanesque comeback at the end of The Black Album, the corporate Jay-Z said he was done rapping. Never mind his guest spots on dozens of tracks, including some by gal pal Beyonce. To paraphrase the man himself, Jay was a businessman, not "a business, man."
But the game, it seems, wasn't quite done with him.
"As you can see, I can't leave," the 36-year-old says at the start of Kingdom Come, powerless to fight his fate. So here we find Jay-Z, player and coach, executive and artist, a former drug dealer turned self-made mogul working all sides of his comeback. Even more juicy: a 36-year-old star, an old coot by hip-hop standards, going to battle against young rappers on both coasts.
If only the results were as exciting as the buildup.
For his return, Jay-Z commissioned all manner of uber-producers (Kanye West, Dr. Dre, the Neptunes) and star performers (Usher, John Legend and, naturally, Beyonce). The samples are just as bold-faced; if you swipe a chunk of Rick James' Super Freak, you better bring your A game, lest you get chumped by MC "U Can't Touch This" Hammer.
But for a hip-hop icon addicted to big and brash inventiveness, Kingdom Come is often just kind of . . . blah. I never thought I'd say that about Jay-Z, but it's true. On Oh My God, produced by Just Blaze, our hero is challenged to rhyme over a rickety go-go beat, with keyboards squealing and backing singers cooing the titular hosanna. "I'm feeling like the world's against me, Lord," he spouts in his limber fashion, "but call me crazy, but strangely I love the odds." For any other rapper, the song would be a statement; for Jay-Z, however, the underdog notion rings false. The odds aren't against you when you're betting the house's money.
Just Blaze also produced up-tempo first single Show Me What You Got. But Jay-Z quickly loses interest in his rhymes (yeah, yeah, you're Michael Jordan, we get it), and instead turns the song into Hip-Hop Hooray Redux. Sometimes the results are just plain ugly. The downright cringe-inducing Hollywood, a duet with Beyonce, sounds like an old Charlie perfume commercial.
There are a couple of downloadable highlights. For the first time in his life, Kanye West shows restraint, producing the too-cool Do U Wanna Ride; thanks to a smooth hook from John Legend, the cut sounds like a hip-hop James Bond theme. Dr. Dre, no spring chicken himself, lays down a piano-driven G-funk beat for 30 Something, in which grumpy old man Jay-Z slaps around younger hip-hop foes ("Y'all roll blunts, I smoke Cubans all day. . . . I like South Beach, but I'm in St. Tropez").
Kingdom Come's most fascinating track is its finale, the Brooklyn-meets-Brit-pop vulnerability of Beach Chair, produced and partially cooed by Coldplay's Chris Martin ("I hear my angels sing/Life is just a dream"). Surveying his kingdom over a gauzy score, Jay-Z stares off into paradise and worries about the life he's led. "I got demons in my past, so I got daughters on the way," he rhymes. "If the prophecy's correct, than the child shall have to pay." Finally, Jay-Z uses his maturity and wisdom to his advantage.
Beach Chair is one of Jay-Z's most mesmerizing tracks, a chilly meditation of the man behind the braggadocio. But as Kingdom Come's finale, it also makes the album that much more frustrating. The way it is now, Jay-Z's comeback is more like Jordan's other comeback, the one no one likes to talk about. Everybody remembers MJ coming out of retirement to win with the Bulls. But nobody wants to remember Be Like Mike limping out his career with the Washington Wizards.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.
Jay-Z, Kingdom Come (Roc-A-Fella). Grade: C+
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