Jay-Z: Rap’s Joe Lieberman


Your entire ass is crazy

It’s not official yet, but Allhiphop reported a couple of days ago that Kingdom Come, Jay-Z’s big comeback album, is on track to sell 850,000 copies in its first week out. That means it has the biggest first-week sales of the year. The figure may not be completely accurate, but the album still sold a shitload. Jay did it. He successfully turned a thoroughly mediocre big-budget event-rap album into a cultural event, and he beat Rascal Flatts. Kingdom Come is almost certainly the worst Jay-Z album, even counting the two he made with R. Kelly. But as a piece of media manipulation and modern mythmaking, it’s a masterpiece. Rap albums don’t sell anymore, but this Jay-Z album is selling, so maybe that means Kingdom Come isn’t a rap album.

A couple of days ago, I was at the Tower Records near my fiancee’s parents’ house in Northern Virginia, digging through the picked-over remnants of that dying empire to see what I could salvage for cheap. Those pre-closing Towers are fascinating places. They’re existing on borrowed time, and you have to wonder about the people who still continue to man the cash registers and vacuum the floors. Maybe they need those last couple of weeks’ worth of paychecks, or maybe they like the idea of working in a place where all the pressure to push overpriced CDs has suddenly disappeared. There was music playing in the store, just like always. But this time, the music playing was Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come was released weeks after Tower announced that it was going out of business, so it wasn’t for sale in the store. And the store was playing the unedited version, cusses left in and everything. This Tower is in a strip-mall, a couple of doors down from a T.J. Maxx. They never play music with the cusses left in. In the past, someone might’ve been fired for it, but nobody could be bothered to object, and they probably need every last remaining person. So I guess one of the store’s salespeople went out and bought Kingdom Come at another store and brought it into work so she could hear the album during one of that store’s dying days. I wonder what that salesperson makes of the album. To someone working a minimum-wage job that’s just a week or two away from evaporating, is it any fun to hear Jay-Z talking about his sophisticated tastes and expensive vacation destinations? I guess it is.

Jay didn’t promote Kingdom Come the way rappers usually promote albums. He didn’t step inside the Rap City booth. He didn’t release a mixtape. He didn’t wear T-shirts with the release date printed in huge letters. Instead, he announced the album’s existence in an Entertainment Weekly cover story. He made a video with racecar drivers. He appeared in a Budweiser ad. Little notices for the album popped up in the corner of the TV during basketball games on TNT. He promoted the album the way film studios promote would-be blockbuster movies, and it paid off. Even though the album earned itself a deafeningly, almost unanimously negative buzz when it leaked a couple of weeks back, people are still buying it. If almost any other rapper released an album to that reaction, it would’ve sunk without a trace. For Jay, it didn’t matter. The album itself feels like an afterthought to the massive publicity blitz. Jim Jones may be wiping the floor with Jay during their improbable current beef, but that doesn’t matter in the least to the people who actually buy music.

The people who buy music are the people who don’t know how to download it, so they don’t have any way of knowing what people on the internet are saying about the new Jay-Z album, and they probably wouldn’t care anyway. Culturally, Jay isn’t competing with any other rappers. He’s competing with Rascal Flatts and James Blunt and Andrea Bocelli, and the consumers he’s targeting are often the same people who buy albums from those guys. And that’s probably why Kingdom Come sounds as flat and lifeless as it does. The Jay-Z that rap nerds like me love is the sneering, haughty, entitled Jay-Z of old, the one who buries all comers with the sheer force of his ego and hides all sorts of half-obscured references in his lyrics just because he can. But those are rap values. Ego isn’t a particularly attractive quality to people who buy James Blunt albums. So Jay has tempered and softened his swagger. He’s made himself sound like an introspective and thoughtful older guy, someone constantly tortured by his legacy. Before I saw those sales figures, I thought that the album’s lazy defeatism was an accident. Now, I’m starting to think that Jay realized something I didn’t. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The story of Kingdom Come reminds me of the story of the recent Connecticut Senate election, the one where Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary, threw a bitch-fit, ran as an independent, and won again. It’s an inexact analogy, but bear with me. Lieberman won because he drew in more Republican voters than Democrat ones. If he had to rely on his old base, he would’ve disappeared, so he pulled in people from the outside. If Jay had to rely on rap fans and rap fans only to sell records, Kingdom Come might’ve disappeared the way the vast majority of 2006 rap albums have. So he reached outside, and it worked. Good for him, I guess.