ost reviews of The Black Album took the titular inquiry “What More Can I Say?” and threw it back at Jay-Z, but it really wasn’t the important question to ask. The bigger issue was in the next line: what more can Jay-Z do? No one can match his combination of critical acclaim and platinum sales. He’s earned a fortune from Roc-A-Fella. Hip-hop’s flagship label made him president. He’s made movies, started a successful clothing line, and is about to bring an NBA team to his backyard. If we believe the rumors, he’s had sex with both Beyonce and Rihanna in the last year alone. He’s turned his most bitter rival into his hypeman, and would-be ascendants to the throne—T.I., Young Jeezy, and Lil’ Wayne—won’t go anywhere near throwing dirt on his name. And to top it off, he threw himself a lavish retirement party that ensured his rap career would end in something other than death, artistic irrelevance, or commercial obsolescence—quite possibly a first. If there are any challenges left for Jay-Z, they’re not in music. What could possibly inspire him to record an album in 2006?
It’s a question that gets raised throughout Kingdom Come, but never answered. It’s telling; in Jay-Z’s surprisingly spotty discography, the best records are determined by whether or not there’s a spark of necessity. Reasonable Doubt was the come-up, The Blueprint was the comeback, and The Black Album may not have found him at his strongest lyrically, but it gained gravitas from meta-awareness and introspection. Kingdom Come is Jay-Z at his least inspired, and, yes, that includes the R. Kelly collaborations.
The production is partly to blame for Kingdom Come not feeling like the type of “event” it should. This may end up being Just Blaze’s national coming-out party, but he’s quickly becoming hip-hop’s Dave Fridmann, a once-innovative producer who now simply makes everything really, really loud. The clever “Superfreak” flip of the title track is overshadowed by the merciless, nearly self-parodic overkill of “Oh My God” and “Show Me What You Got.” It was strange to hear Jay-Z as an afterthought on the “Hustlin’” remix, but there are tracks on Kingdom Come where he’s almost being ignored; Kanye and John Legend render him unnecessary on the lush, soulful “Do U Wanna Ride,” and he struggles mightily to find the beat on Chris Martin’s first crack at production, which doesn’t even sound like it was made with a rapper in mind.
On the lyrical front, Jay hasn’t completely lost his ability to rap, but he does spend plenty of time spinning his wheels (“It’s a new era / So I’ve got a brand new hat”). This is stuff he could come up with in a doctor’s waiting room over a copy of People: Ben and J. Lo, “Angelina Joleezie,” MySpace, Steve Jobs, etc. Granted, this may be the circle Jay-Z runs in these days, but they make for tired punchlines.
But even if he won’t admit it, DipSet ends up saving the day for Kingdom Come. Not because the track where Jigga breaks his silence on their beef is a classic (“Dig a Hole” is closer to “Blueprint 2” than “The Takeover”), but because when Kingdom Come works, it’s clear that Jay loves hip-hop but hates the people in it. It’s hard not to see DipSet as a straw man for those in the industry that Jay finds beneath him—those who took his sweatless swagger and turned it into willful ignorance, those who followed his blueprint of being a rapper-turned-hustler without learning to rap first.
Ultimately, hip-hop is a video game where Jay-Z’s beaten every level, and he’s halfheartedly trying to rack up more points. The Black Album ended with him telling us that he treats his last song like his first. Kingdom Come closes with beach chairs, Coldplay, and middle-age. How is this like “Can’t Knock the Hustle” at all?
One thing links the two: the need for escape. He might play up maturity as a desirable career move, but on more personal efforts like “Dig a Hole,” “Lost Ones,” and “Trouble,” it seems like he’s double-checking his work, afraid to name names. His success has brought him to a point where he can no longer pull of an “Ain’t No” or “The City Is Mine” without reneging on his new outlook on life. But is this the real Jay-Z? Or is Jay-Z like any other thirtysomething buying hot cars and dallying with nubile women? You know what to call that, don’t you?