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If Jay-Z were a country or R&B singer, he wouldn’t have to worry about spinning his life into evocative lyrics—he could have someone write for him and rap about the lives of others until he got his swagger back. But in hip-hop, outsourcing doesn’t fly, so the CEO of Def Jam is in a position where he must do what every other rapper with extreme longevity has done—figure out how to tell new stories or do things to completely distract from his story.
The rapper’s strength has always been his ability to inventory his material possessions in a splashy, outrageous way while at the same time grimly outlining all of the shit he had to go through to acquire them. It’s that quality that separated him from peers who never got beyond the first half of that equation. Whether rapping about the Lexuses and butter leathers bought with drug money on Reasonable Doubt or the diamond bezels and Maybachs that attracted the envy of many on his fakeass swan song The Black Album, Jay is a master of talking about any period in his life or fleeting mood in a way that engages both the casual and the obsessive listener.
Kingdom Come, released two weeks ago, is, as most of its reviews suggest, bad. It’s not bad merely because Jay-Z has been plugging his comeback since his retirement and has failed to live up to his own hype. It is not bad just because Jay-Z is now a mogul and moguls are bad rappers—although, that is almost always true. And, most important of all, Kingdom Come isn’t a bad album because Jay no longer has stories to tell. It’s bad because the rapper just can’t seem to convey the details of his current station in a compelling way.
Jay-Z’s descriptions of his possessions circa 2006 are evocative and even more aristocratic than in the past. On lead single/Budweiser jingle “Show Me What You Got”—Just Blaze’s live jam session mixed with the infamous “Rump Shaker” horns from “Shaft in Africa” and a Flava Flav exclamation—Jay talks about sipping from “that gold bottle with that ace of spades,” referring to a bottle of Armand de Brignac Champagne, a brand hastily created by Cattier to capitalize on Jay-Z’s campaign against Cristal. Jay-Z’s money talk has reached a new level of elitist excess that puts him in the hip-hop subgenre of country-club rap, an exclusive clique with only one other member: Diddy.
The suffering behind the paper chase, however, Jay can’t quite capture. He tries to dig deep on tracks such as “Lost One,” which uses, and, at times, misuses, one of several incredible beats provided by Dr. Dre. The piece runs through three painful scenarios—the loss of a friend, who sounds an awful lot like Dame Dash; a distant love, who has a lot in common with Beyoncé; and the death of a family member, Colleek Luckie, Jay-Z’s nephew who was killed in a car accident last year and is the only person referred to by name.
Although the tribute to Luckie is touching, the other two vignettes come across as whiny tell-alls that verge on cliché and just aren’t executed very well. In the Dash verse, Hov rhymes “I heard muthafuckas sayin’ they made Hov/Made Hov say ‘OK, so, make another Hov’/Niggas wasn’t playing they day role/So we parted ways like Ben and J. Lo.” Ben and J. Lo? The verse also shows Jay’s new obsession with using the same few words but giving each repetition new meaning—a technique that was used sparingly on albums past is now used every other line. And, while witty, the device isn’t all that fun to listen to.
The same tone infects “Hollywood,” the requisite Beyoncé/Jay-Z collaboration on the album. Here Jay falls into a trap he’s always avoided: longform bitching about his riches and the downside of being in the spotlight. “When your friends is Chris and Gwyneth/When your girl is more famous than you then it’s/Time to get all your windows tinted/Keep your eyes squinted/It’s gonna flash any minute/The music biz is like musical chairs/It’s about where you standing when the music stops spinnin’,” he rhymes. Sneaking a little of this sort of thing into a song sounds like witty observation; entire tracks devoted to musings on fame are trite.
A lull in personal anecdotes or even the temporary inability to be reflective can be compensated for in many ways, including telling someone else’s stories. Jay gives it a shot with “Minority Report,” his stab at Katrina commentary. The appropriately somber Dre beat, complete with harp, thunderstorm noises, and a Pavarotti sample (is there anything he can’t get cleared?), underscore Jay’s retelling of events and sound bites from various news broadcasts during the disaster. The result is a perfectly decent remembrance, but, unfortunately, third-person storytelling cannot fill an entire album.
“Anything,” featuring Usher and Pharrell, which Jay introduces as a little something for all those amateur exotic dancers who get their exercise spinning around a pole, is a throwaway piece of jerky, uneven fluff. Jay-Z is used to making lighthearted fare with the Neptunes—“I Just Wanna Love You” and “Excuse Me Miss,” for example. But usually Pharrell and Chad Hugo are able to produce a catchy hit. “Dig a Hole” boasts some lazy rhymes on Jay’s part with, of all things, a Swizz Beatz track that sounds like a slow jam. And the Chris Martin–produced “Beach Chair” is just the latest Jay-Z collaboration to highlight his poor taste in rock music.
Kingdom Come possesses only a few bright spots: the album’s eponymous prelude, “Oh My God,” and “30 Something.” Sadly, the album intro doesn’t set the tone for what follows. Unlike the sloppy lines to be found on tracks such as “Show Me What You Got” (“Nigga, I am the Mike Jordan of recordin’/…you might wanna fall back from recordin’”), he is limber and clever here, reminding us of his early days with his flow as well as his lyrics: “Back when rappers wouldn’t dare play lyrical roulette/With a automatic weapon I was reppin’ with a tek/Fresh like Mannie be/Chain like antifreeze/Shoebox full of cash, dealer man hand me ki’s/Pantries full of Arm & Hammer, don’t take Nancy Drew to see/What it do, I’m a damn G/Just sent a million dollars through a hands free/That’s big money talk, can you answer me?” The short track—about two-and-a-half minutes—ends with Jay claiming “the real is back,” which proves to be a cruel tease.
On “Oh My God,” Just Blaze gets to show off his talent for splicing rock and hip-hop and, unlike Jay, the producer’s rock sensibilities are impeccable. A piece of “Whipping Post,” performed by Genya Ravan, not the Allman Brothers, a Valley Girl nasally chanting “Oh. My. God.” and an instrumental crescendo make the lyrics pretty much irrelevant.
“30 Something” is Jay’s embrace of his 37 years and the wisdom they’ve brought him. It’s also a quiet response to all the old-man jokes that Cam’ron and Jim Jones have been throwing his way. “I’m young enough to know the right car to buy yet grown enough not to put rims on it,” Jay rhymes in his attempt to school “young boys,” “young fucks,” and other manner of whippersnappers. It’s his best effort at bringing listeners into his new world and would sound even better if surrounded by more material like it.
Kingdom Come is disappointing because its creator is a victim of unavoidable circumstance. The tragic condition of superstar rappers is that the point when they are powerful and influential enough to catch the most ears is also the precise moment that they find themselves at a loss for words. CP