Jay-Z’s retirement was like Britney’s marriage: The only surprise is it lasted this long. He has always styled himself as the black Sinatra, and when Sinatra retired in the early 1970s, he only made it two years before Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Did anybody believe Hova, the most titanic musical force of the past decade, was going to have his hard-knock midlife crisis in private? While his fans are out there partying to T.I. and Lil’ Wayne? Never that. So the ruler is back with Kingdom Come, explaining, “I used to think rapping at thirty-eight was ill/But last year alone I grossed thirty-eight mill.” Like Sinatra in the Seventies, he’s proud to be old, devoting a whole song (“30 Something”) to how he doesn’t put rims on his whips anymore. He doesn’t get kids today — but you have to love the way he boasts, “I got a chemical romance,” and then pleads, “Save me from the black parade.” Ho is so emo!
The last time Jay fired himself up with comeback talk, on 2001’s classic The Blueprint, he had that Apollo Creed “Eye of the Tiger” spirit. This time, he’s more imperious, kicking back like he has nothing to prove or learn, as if the game didn’t change while he was away. Sometimes this strategy works (Michael Jordan in 1995, Dr. Dre’s 2001); sometimes it doesn’t (Miles Davis in the Eighties, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish II). Jay battles it to a draw. He leans hard on big-deal producers, getting great tracks from Dre (“Trouble”) and Swizz Beatz (“Dig a Hole”). Just Blaze provides two real killers: “Kingdom Come,” slicing up Rick James’ “Super Freak,” and “Oh My God,” which bites a soul cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” (Somewhere, Duane is damn proud.) “Trouble” is the hottest, with Jay spitting, “If my hand’s in the cookie jar/Know one thing/I’m-a take the cookie/Not leave my ring.”
On “Kingdom Come” and “Trouble,” Jay is just dominant. But one way he definitely did not spend his vacation was woodshedding new lyrics, because he’s mostly boasting about his street-hustling days, which are, what, fifteen years behind him? He has trouble finding things to get hard about, besides CEO office politics and post-retirement boredom. He disses Cristal, and switches to Krug Rose. He raps about giving Beyonce space on “Lost Ones,” one of his feebler efforts, though she sings on “Hollywood.” When he rhymes about New Orleans with Ne-Yo in “Minority Report,” he just seems pissed Kanye got so much attention for bitch-slapping George Bush. As for “Beach Chair,” the collabo with Coldplay’s Chris Martin — you know how bad you think it is? It’s that bad. When Martin croons the hook, “I hear my angel sing,” you think he’s saying “my agent,” and that might make more sense.
Jay rhymes about Jordan’s comeback, inspiring jokes that Kingdom Come equals Jordan on the Wizards (hey, it beats Jordan on the Birmingham Barons). “Thirty’s the new twenty” is the theme, but to turn one of his old hits around, Kingdom Come is about where he’s been, not where he’s about to go. He still gets excited about the dealer he used to be, but if you’re wondering who Jay-Z is now, well, so is he. As he admits several times on the album, the only reason there’s a new one is he didn’t know what else to do — a reasonable doubt indeed. Last time, on The Black Album, Jay dubbed himself “rap’s Grateful Dead.” So maybe this is his Mars Hotel, or Wake of the Flood, but at least it’s not Go to Heaven. On Kingdom Come, the highs are really high, and the lows are really low. As Sinatra used to say, that’s life.