Comeback 'Kingdom'
Jay-Z returns, but with a tired rerun of earlier sounds and ideas

November 24, 2006


'H-O-V-A/Let's go get 'em again!" Jay-Z announces near the start of his ninth studio album.

Officially putting an end to the most-hyped but least real retirement in the history of popular music -- and setting aside the fact that he'd already come back for a second album and tour as part of the ill-fated "Best of Both Worlds" project with R. Kelly -- the 36-year-old rapper, label chief and ever-industrious entrepreneur released his much-anticipated comeback album "Kingdom Come" on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, the follow-up to "The Black Album," which was accompanied by an avalanche of farewell hype that included a "final" concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, may be the most self-centered, lackluster, autopilot effort of his career.

To be certain, Shawn Carter deserves his reputation as one of the most agile, free-flowing rappers the genre has ever produced. In the early days of his career, on albums such as his debut effort, "Reasonable Doubt" (1996); "In My Lifetime, Vol. 1" (1997), and the smash-hit quintuple-platinum" Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life" (1998), his obsession with acquiring the material evidence of success could be heard as a former crack dealer who survived the hardscrabble existence of the streets to lust for a better way of life. But the more popular he became, the more tedious this particular strain of his rapping grew.

Now, at a point where his admission to any VIP lounge is guaranteed, with or without his girlfriend Beyonce Knowles, and he's wheeling and dealing in the corporate suites as president of Def Jam Records, Jay-Z's rampant materialism is beyond played.

"I'm young enough to know the right car to buy/Yet grown enough not to put rims on it," Hova tells us at one point. Even more ridiculously, he later adds, "I got black cards, good credit and such" and, "What you call money, I pay more in taxes."

Jay-Z was inching toward returning to the microphone almost from the minute he quit performing and recording, but many fans presumed his comeback meant that he had something important to say. Instead, it seems as if he just missed the spotlight. "Fame is the worst drug known to man/It's stronger than heroin," he confesses in "Lost Ones."

Despite a few halfhearted lines about Hurricane Katrina on "Minority Report" and yet another tribute to his mother in "I Made It," the majority of the lyrics on "Kingdom Come" continue to find Jay-Z bragging about his wealth, his fame and the fact that he's back. Despite the star-studded roster of producers, including Dr. Dre, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, the grooves are as uninspired as the lyrics; the usually spot-on Just Blaze even stoops to incorporating that hoariest of hip-hop cliches, building a track around a sample of the core hook from "Super Freak" by Rick James. But the blame for the album's mediocrity ultimately belongs to Hova.

Jay-Z knows that few rappers have managed to stay on the pop-culture radar through their second or third albums, much less their ninth, and that none of his peers has remained a potent force entering middle age. In the disc's most interesting track, "30 Something," he insists that he's going to be the exception, repeating again and again, "Thirty is the new 20."

This could have been a fascinating topic for the artist to mine, if he'd actually explored the notion of how a rapper can grow and incorporate more mature themes. Instead, he continues to fixate on adolescent concerns and empty materialism. In this regard, "Kingdom Come" sounds like every album the Rolling Stones have made since the '80s: a poor simulation of once-great sounds by a legend who's resting on his laurels and who no longer has anything to say.


Grown-up rapper/exec 'needed to get back into it'
Jay-Z famously retired from life as an artist in 2003 and then was named president of Def Jam, but being an MC without a platform clearly didn't suit the rap star.

''I believed it for two years ... [but] something, when you love it, is always tugging at you and itching, and I was putting it off and putting it off,'' Jay-Z told Entertainment Weekly this summer. ''I started fumbling around to see if it felt good.''

His latest album, "Kingdom Come," takes its inspiration and title from the 1996 comic book about Superman's return from retirement. Its first single, ''Show Me What You Got,'' rocketed nearly 40 spots into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 last week.

Jay-Z, 36, who frequently compares his career to NBA great Michael Jordan's, says hip-hop has suffered recently from ''no star power and no artist development'' and too much ''disposable music.''

''With the state of the game now, I jueded to get back into it," he says. "I'm not saying that I'm saving hip-hop by myself. There are a lot of albums coming out -- Eminem, Nas, Dr. Dre ...

''We all want to make hot music,'' says Jay-Z. ''It seems when people get 30 years old in hip-hop, they still want to be 16, and that's impossible. I wanted to make adult music.''