Hova's Slight Return

Jay-Z's aura finally outshines his art—what a drag it is getting old

Anyone with an Internet connection pirated Jay-Z's Kingdom Come weeks ago, and most blogs supported one of two positions. Reviewer A charges Jay didn't deliver the epic he should've, considering his ballyhooed return from a two-year pseudo-retirement; also, it's a problem that Jay is pushing 37, and the production wasn't worthy of a "classic." Reviewer Type B was feeling the album somewhat, recognizing Jay's undiminished lyrical brilliance and seeing his comeback as a surefire rainmaker for Def Jam, hiphop, and the music industry. But nobody seemed blown away—what's up with that common denominator?

Not many MCs could travel to Paris and headline the 6,000-seat Le Zénith 10 years into their career, but Jay-Z is not your average. On a Friday night last month, Jigga treated revelers on the French leg of his Water for Life Tour (raising awareness for the world water crisis—see his recent MTV special) to consecutive-summer hits like "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," and "Girls, Girls, Girls." Parisian B-boys brought their hands together in Roc-A-Fella Records' diamond formation during the hard-rock swagger of "99 Problems." Jay stood perfectly still, spitting rhymes center stage, his witty linguistics far from lost in translation. In the springtime Kanye West hadstood in the exact same spot bragging to his own sold-out crowd about his beats on the as-yet-unheard-of new Jay-Z album. When Entertainment Weekly broke thenews of Jay's comeback months after 'Ye's show, the joke was on them, awarding the worst-kept secret in music with a cover story like a worthy scoop.

First Superman Returns, now this. Only in the past 10 or so years of hiphop's 30-plus-year history have MCs had the luxury of retiring, even as a career move; they used to just fall off. Too Short used it for contract negotiation. Mase found God at the precise moment the rap game started catching bodies, stepping back to the mic when the (East versus West) coast was clear. By the time Master P ran the excuse, industry and fans alike were hip to the game. What separates Jay-Z from that lot—no snickering, please—is that Jigga is well on his way to being canonized as the greatest MC of all time, which makes Kingdom Come a Big Event regardless of the fact that no one ever believed his exit was permanent. With Beyoncé on his arm at the Oscars, Jay's become a pop icon in a way he actively rejected not too long ago. (Just in '03 he passed up appearing on the cover of Russell Simmons's defunct Oneworld alongside Paris and Nicky Hilton, fearing it was too commercial. Now he's the only MC you could find fronting both XXL and GQmagazines in the same month.)

Cynics feel Biggie Smalls's murder cleared the way for Jay's success the same way Aaliyah's death created a void for Beyoncé, and so their coupling is eerily appropriate. Speaking of Big, Life After Death left behind a template of the populist hiphop album with something for everybody: slow jam ("Fucking You Tonight"), West Coast groove ("Going Back to Cali"), etc. Jay followed this structure to his detriment at first, but he's come to dominate rap by providing this kind of range, and Kingdomfollows suit. Fans will expect the MC to address certain issues raised since the supposed swan song of 2003's The Black Album, and he goes there. "Lost One"—inspired by Lauryn Hill's old kiss-off to Wyclef—goes through a few different narrative angles, but the very first deals with ex-Roc-A-Fella partner Damon Dash. Parading his Sagittarian confidence like conflict-diamond bling, Jay talks big ("I heard motherfuckers sayin they made Hov/Made Hov say,/'OK, so, make another Hov' "). Kingdom often comes mature like this, with real-life reflections about relationships ebbing with age. But is the prevailing taste of rap consumers interested in grown-up hiphop? Ah. . . the critical issue.

Age is Kingdom's subliminal theme. In "30 Something" Jay claims 30 is the new 20 (though he'll turn 40 in three years) and runs down a list of his bygone twentysomething obsessions and their modern corollaries: Amex Centurion cards instead of fat wads of bills, buying a club like his 40/40 franchise instead of buying out the bar. Staking out an elder perspective like this is a dangerous move. ("No, I never been on MySpace," Jay rhymes on "Beach Chair," produced by Coldplay's Chris Martin. "I'm too busy lettin' my voice vibrate, carving out my space.") De La Soul may have started the whole mature-rap subgenre on Stakes Is High, but they don't move no units. Back when Nas (who's 33) and Jay were rivals, he attacked Jay's age as an Achilles' heel. There's little precedent for aging gracefully in hiphop, and absolutely none for doing it profitably.

If the average rap fan is a suburban 16-year-old white male, how will he feel about "I Made It"? Steeped in nostalgia for the early-'80s days of ColecoVision, WHT, Atari, and the like, Jigga thanks his moms for weathering him through the bad times. He's bigged up his mother for her sacrifices before in rhyme. But where does this leave the listener who can't relate to the era Jay recalls? Nodding his head at least? That's the gamble of Kingdom Come. Mick Jagger will wiggle his ass to "Brown Sugar" till he needs a hip replacement, but how many more years will Jay-Z manage to sell out Le Zénith?

On "Do U Wanna Ride," Jay gets at nameless detractors—namely Cam'ron and DMX—who revoked his ghetto pass for wearing Birkenstocks ("Wear sneakers on the beach if you want to"). It's the stance of a man with nothing to prove, but it also serves to pit him against keepin-it-realer-than-thou young'uns as officially older and proud of it. (He also takes potshots at "li'l niggas" on "Trouble," which contains some hilarity about making 106 & Park's Free his babymama.) "Dig a Hole" is the summit of the record, likening Cam'ron's summertime Jigga disses to the disciples dissing Jesus. He needn't have bothered—his rep was nowhere near in danger, and he knows it—but the track and rhymes are typically entertaining.

Mere braggadocio won't cut it for an Event Album, though. "Minority Report" finds Jay in emotive voice, like he's taken sensitivity lessons from Ghostface, rhyming on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and lackluster government efforts. The Black Album first betrayed his desire for a space like Common's in the hiphop landscape; "Report" ends with Kanye's infamous quote about Bush. But just a few songs earlier, Usher and Pharrell help Jay encourage strippers and aerobics strippercisers to bounce their asses on "Anything," shouting out Magic City in Atlanta not once but twice. And "Kingdom Come" comes chock-full of superhero imagery: a Clark Kent at The Daily Planet/Jay at Def Jam analogy, Jay climbing the charts like Spider-Man. The entire album is named for a graphic novel depicting the return of old, archetypal heroes. In between John Legend's vocals, the MC flies a kite for his boy locked down in prison through "Do U Wanna Ride." And the "Show Me What You Got" single is for the club, a commercial Just Blaze ditty neither could've gotten away with unless it was a first taste for a salivating public.

Jay-Z's seminal Reasonable Doubt shocked the world 10 years ago, a personal touchstone for fans then Jay's own age who were getting their own hustles on—hiphop's young, gifted, and black. Hearing Kingdom Come, we gauge our progress. What this might mean for that 16-year-old suburban white male mesmerized by flavor-of-the-month Southern MCs is anybody's guess.

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