Ten years after his debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” signified his arrival to the heyday of hip-hop music and three years after the culmination of his career, “The Black Album” announced his departure from the declining rap world, Jay-Z returned this November with his eighth full-length album, “Kingdom Come.” If anyone has grown after years of hustling, composing and achieving stardom in the music industry, it would certainly be Jay-Z. And if any work should reflect this voyage, it would undoubtedly be “Kingdom Come.”
p. The Brooklyn-born emcee’s maturation shines through on his newest album. It opens with “The Prelude,” where Jay explains his mind-state and tumultuous relationship with the lifestyle that may have both led him to his three-year hiatus from the charts and now brings him back to the studio. His lyrics flow smoothly, methodically and passionately, at one point directly addressing rap as if it were the subject of a love song: “Forget this rap shit I need a new hustle / A little bit of everything, a new improved Russell / I say that reluctantly cause I do struggle / As you see I can’t leave so I do love you.”
p. The first three tracks, produced by Just Blaze, sound like the Jay-Z of old, although his lyrics lack the desire and grit that catapulted him to the top over the last decade (“Big Pimpin’ ” excluded). On the title track, Jay labels himself hip-hop royalty, with the chorus proclaiming his return as messiah-like: “King of New York / Not only NYC I’m hip-hop’s savior / So after this flow you might owe me a favor.”
p. I’m not sure how much of a favor we really owe him. The album as a whole is difficult to approach. In terms of what the self-proclaimed “King of New York” is capable of, it falls short — in fact, it’s borderline miserable — compared to his other works. With little left to prove, the album is nowhere near as brilliant as “Reasonable Doubt,” “The Black Album” or “The Blueprint,” but few would expect that it would be.
p. That being said, his lyrics are still ten times better than those of any other hip-hop artist on the radio or on MTV. Regardless of how catchy or lap dance-conducive recent radio hits have been, Jay-Z still finds a way to make the majority of today’s mainstream rappers look like they’re still fighting to finish kindergarten English.
This observation is not to imply that the club-bangers are not present — they are, most notably on the album’s first single “Show Me What Ya Got” — but these are few in number, and overall the album features a nearly respectable variety of beats and topics of varying complexity and sincerity.
p. After starting off strong, the subsequent tracks on “Kingdom Come,” with a few exceptions, are relatively disappointing. John Legend’s harmonious vocals do little to save “Do U Wanna Ride?” and the hopelessly tacky and sugar-coated “Anything,” featuring Usher and Pharrell, is one of Jay-Z’s career lows, and not just because of Usher.
p. The soulful “Lost One” features some of Jay’s best lyrics on the album and a smooth, memorable chorus sung by Chrisette Michele. He addresses the government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in “Minority Report,” but also raps about the underlying social conditions in America which seem only to have been exposed by the catastrophe.
p. Like most of Jay’s recent work, Beyonce is featured in one song, “Hollywood,” and the result is not as glaringly tawdry as their recent collaborations. This pleasant surprise features Beyonce close to her best and reflects the difficulties of a paparazzi-filled life of fame, which Jay refers to as “the most addictive drug in the world.”
p. The album ends with one of the most interesting and unexpected musical collaborations conceivable, as the slow yet intense “Beach Chair” features production and background vocals by Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Unfortunately, this peculiar mélange falters and brings the album to a disappointing conclusion.
p. It is hard to guess whether this album falls short because of Jay’s own issues of disillusionment with the rap world, because of an attempt to make the album eclectic and more appealing to a wider crowd or simply due to a lack of motivation, rap, but it clearly is a disappointment for fans of Jay-Z’s earlier work. He exhausts a great deal of energy reflecting on his experiences in rap and life, at times almost arrogantly articulating what separates him from some of the new faces of hip-hop. Rather than using his masterful poetic skill, which really is what separates him from the rest, Jay instead focuses on his maturation and affluence while simultaneously trying to appear humble. Despite a few notable bright spots, the result is largely a disappointment. Still, it is impossible to say that Jay-Z is not capable of another masterful album. It just seems to be a question of his own desire to do so.