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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 02:32 pm

A less-than-spirited return for Jay-Z

Rapper’s new Kingdom Come doesn't feel like a comeback

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It’s difficult to muster up the nerve to throw stones at a guy like Jay-Z. Ever running the rap game, he released a chain of hits, rarely missing a link and never staying off the charts for long. From his rocketing start with Reasonable Doubt to his graceful bow-out on The Black Album, the Brooklyn-born MC has had a near-perfect career — but his new album, Kingdom Come, doesn't feel like much of a comeback.

Jay-Z’s highly publicized retirement from the mic was met with considerable doubt. Could Jay-Z, braggadocio personified, handle playing the rap game from behind the CEO’s desk at Def Jam Records? It took only three years for that office chair to begin chafing. Still, Jay climbed his way to the top of the rap charts and stayed there in an industry where most contenders for the throne can manage only to stick around for a year or so. That, coupled with his current position as head honcho of hip-hop’s most influential label, implies that the man has more than a little wisdom to impart on his latest outing.

Predictably then, Kingdom Come finds a mature man hiding behind the money talk and self-endorsements of the album. Fulfilling the role of rags-to-riches poster boy finds our hero conflicted. On the record’s best track, “Minority Report,” an earnest Hurricane Katrina lament, Jay-Z expresses grief over his decision to pony up a million dollars instead of making the trek down to New Orleans himself. Snippets of sound bites by talking heads, survivors, President George W. Bush, and Kanye West pepper the track, accompanied by cracks of thunder, the whir of helicopter blades, the drumming of rain, and a simple piano line plus snare drum. Jay-Z’s sorrowful cadence and obvious remorse over his lack of action make for a compelling track.

The inevitable Jay-Z/Beyoncé duet, “Hollywood,” is the power couple’s weakest collaboration. The lovebirds’ musical union has been a lesson in diminishing returns, beginning up high with the bombastic, exciting “Crazy in Love,” followed by the mediocre “Deja Vu,” and sputtering along with Kingdom Come’s overly polished “Hollywood.” Beyoncé coos about the limelight in a “hooray for Hollywood” way. Jay-Z gives shout-outs to Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin but, tongue planted firmly in cheek, says, “Now you become what you once despised.” In the cheap story that is “Hollywood,” Jay-Z name-checks a number of stars who died of drug overdoses (e.g., River Phoenix, Janis Joplin). It’s a cautionary tale, really.

John Legend accompanies Jay-Z on “Do U Wanna Ride,” a trip down memory lane to his humble beginnings in the Marcy Projects. Title track “Kingdom Come,” another good one, chops up beats from Rick James’ “Superfreak,” and the single “Show Me What You Got” marks a return of the Jay-Z party anthem. The strong track “Lost One” features the little-known songbird Chrisette Michele on this celebratory throwback tune with a classic piano line. Jay-Z reflects on mistakes made (“too much flossing, too much Sam Rostine”). and vows to make changes (“Hov had to get the shallow sh!$ up off him”).

If Kingdom Come is a sign of Jay-Z’s new substance-over-style motto, he may be taking it seriously. The album doesn’t live up to the prolific MC’s hit-filled past, but it shows a confessional side into one of the rap industry’s most enigmatic figures.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.

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