The plot thickens. Someone in Bratislava, Slovakia went to the second night of Jay-Z’s world tour, took a partially obscured photo of a semi-cryptic message that flashed on Jay’s JumboTron, and e-mailed it to both Nah Right and Allhiphop Rumors. There’s so much in there that’s unlikely and inconclusive, but it still stands as further proof of something that everyone already knew: Jay-Z is recording a new record, and it’s going to be out by the end of November. The screen in Bratislava apparently told all of Slovakia the release date and everything, but I guess someone’s head was in someone’s way, and we all have to speculate that maybe November 21 will be the day we get our first new Jay-Z album in three years. Nobody ever really believed that Jay was retired in the first place, of course; even on The Black Album, he was dropping hints and making allusions about a possible return. He did an onslaught of press around the time that album was released, and he see-sawed back and forth on whether this would be his actual last album or whether he’d maybe leave himself open to doing something in the future if he felt like it. And then he did another Best of Both Worlds album and an album with Linkin Park and an ill-fated tour with R. Kelly and a bunch of publicity-grabbing shows: Live 8, the I Declare War show, the Reasonable Doubt anniversary show, plenty of others. He ran out onstage with Kanye West and the Roots and Mariah Carey. He made guest appearances for Kanye and Beyonce and Young Jeezy and Rick Ross and Bun B and Lupe Fiasco. He pretty much never stopped doing the stuff he’d been doing all along; he just did it more slowly and deliberately, and we treated it like a major event whenever he deigned to come down from his mountain and bless us with a lazy verse or two.
The question now is whether he missed his window. Jay seems to have engendered a fair amount of industry bitterness during his tenure as Def Jam president. At first, it seemed like a great idea: someone who’d had amazing success both as an artist and a businessman, someone who clearly understood the rap business better than pretty much anyone else, taking the reigns of the most dominant rap label in history and holding in his hands the futures of Def Jam’s remarkable roster, lending his expertise to smaller artists now that he wasn’t going to be using it for himself anymore. Artistically, at least, he’s had some great results. Late Registration and Fishscale and Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, three of my favorite rap albums of the last couple of years, all came out during his watch. As Noz has pointed out, he’s granted a surprising amount of independence; all of those albums are true and accurate depictions of their artists’ aesthetics. With Kanye and Young Jeezy, he’s had commercial success. But lately, his presidency has turned into something of a disaster, with albums going out into the world with minimal promotion and languishing by themselves. The Roots and Method Man released Def Jam albums on the same day and ended up competing against each other and putting up mediocre numbers; neither one seems particularly happy about it. The label hasn’t had much success in turning Rihanna and Ne-Yo and Rick Ross into major stars, despite their best efforts. Freeway and Redman and Joe Budden all continue to languish on the shelves. Lady Sovereign somehow ended up with a Def Jam contract. LL Cool J showed up to the VMAs alongside 50 Cent a couple of weeks back and said that Jay works harder to promote himself than he does to promote his artists, and it was total sour grapes, but it still seemed sort of true. Now: it’s entirely unclear to what extent these missteps belong to Jay. He’s certainly not running the whole damn company by himself, and he’s working in a climate where nobody but scrubbed country superstars and scrubbed Disney Channel pin-ups seems to be able to move records. Still, his legendary business sense isn’t looking so good right now.
To make matters worse, his guest appearances have mostly been just OK lately. Jay was never someone who used his best material on other people’s records; he’s not a Ludacris. But early on in his fake retirement, he was still having great moments: his endlessly quotable verse on Kanye’s “Diamonds” remix, “Dear Summer,” even “Crazy in Love.” More recently, though, he’s been aping Rick Ross’s turgid flow on Ross’s own remix and dropping unmemorable punchlines on Beyonce songs. His appearances on Lupe Fiasco’s just-leaked “Pressure” is an interesting case-in-point: it’s warm and playful and virtuosic, but it also feels somehow inessential, like he’s just fulfilling obligations and mumbling a couple of quick lines rather than challenging himself or doing his best to top the other guy on the track. I love Lupe, but he shouldn’t be able to outrap Jay-Z even on his own song, not yet. I would dearly love to see Jay-Z come back with a new album and just obliterate the universe with it, but I’m a little skeptical whether he’s going to bother.
I’m probably just being alarmist. Jay’s Reasonable Doubt show was transcendent, still the best show I’ve seen this year and I’ve seen a lot of shows. He’s still capable of coming up with something like “44 Fours.” And a three-year break between albums is only really a big thing for someone who put out an album a year for the better part of a decade; Christina Aguilera took a longer time to grind out a new album, and she never told anyone she was retiring. I have no doubt that Jay has another amazing album in it, but if the past year has proved anything, it’s that Jay-Z is not above skepticism.
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z