Critic vs. critic

It turns out Kingdom Come, Jay-Z's big "I'm back" album, is his return to so-so-ness. The beats are mostly predictable and the rhymes are too safe; Jay settles for outside shots when he really should come strong to the hoop. There's also the issue of his one-man genre: mogul-rap. How do you co-own an NBA team, run six or seven other businesses (at last count), find the time to spin woven ropes of platinum from your fingers and woo Beyoncé Knowles, and still bring it effectively on the mic? Something has to give, and in Jay's case it's the quality. MT freelancer Marisa Brown and I knocked the hustle.

Johnny Loftus: Jay-Z moved 680,000 units in the first week Kingdom Come hit the Billboard pop charts. This is slightly insane. Does it prove that Jay can still rap, and fans want to hear him rap? Or that his music market share should match that of his clothing line, officially licensed shoe, and boutique vodka brand? And what does Danica Patrick think about all this?

Marisa Brown: It means he's famous enough to do whatever he wants, and get almost anything he wants. His face is everywhere (or hands, in the case of his HP commercial), and, as the CEO and president of the label that's releasing his album, he can green-light the (huge) promotional budget. This would be acceptable if Jay-Z were still as good of a rapper as he was on The Blueprint. But his rhymes have worsened considerably.

And Danica? She's sporting a Nomex Rocawear racing suit, wondering when her first Def Jam single's going to drop.

Loftus: Have Jay's rhymes weakened precisely because his coffers have fattened? He's less hungry, so is his style less hungry? All emcees ever want to do is be the best, be on top. And that makes them ravenous. But then they get there and realize they can coast. The platinum commode is one of the places hip hop meshes with pop music.

Brown: You're right. HOVA knows he's immediately going to move 680,000 copies of whatever he releases, so he can just chill with B in his helicopter chewing on gold nuggets. To be fair, after hearing the first single, "Show Me What You Got," I was interested in what he was going to do, mostly because it doesn't sound very much like a first single, especially a coming-out-of-retirement first single. But overall, Kingdom Come is disappointing.

Jay-Z's become a Bono figure, involving himself in a myriad of projects — including one with the UN — while still clearing album sales into the millions without actually releasing anything that memorable.

Loftus: I like parts of Kingdom Come, but I don't think I'm going to care about any of it in two months.

Brown: I like that the title track samples Rick James' "Super Freak," but not in a predictable way. And the beats on the album are pretty solid throughout, even on the Chris Martin-helmed track. The Kanye-produced "Do U Wanna Ride" is pretty good, and it has the line "Jay Brown and Kawanna/Sneaking marijuana/You know that Mary J/Give you no more drama," which is clever. But those are the only real highlights. "Minority Report," the Hurricane Katrina tribute, is vaguely insightful and perhaps necessary. But Jay's coasting again, only this time it's about Katrina so we're supposed to love it automatically.

Loftus: I think Blaze nails it on "Oh My God," because I'm a sucker for that bright snare clip and the soul bursts. But then Jay's rapping about his life being like GFA on his PSP. What? That's something POD would rap about. The last verse isn't much better, but when he's talking about appearing on "Monday Night Football" and bringing water to the poor — not to mention "When you're ten years in holla back then" — at least Jay's being real about what his life is like these days. You know, pulling from experience. Too bad he can't do that while still adding the zings and redirects that used to make his raps so great.

Brown: Yeah, he's not selling drugs and fighting anymore — he's even made up with Nas! — so what can he talk about? But then he tries that tack on "30 Something," and with the exception of one or two lines, it falls short.

Loftus: So where are we at with Jay-Z? Now that he's un-retired, is he going to be mediocre for a few years with brief stabs of greatness, a la Michael Jordan, then retire completely to a life of popped golf collars and pressing flesh in the halls of power, a la Michael Jordan?

Brown: Accurate. He does say he's "the Mike Jordan of recordin'," after all. He'll release another album or two, do some collaborations, and nothing will be great. He'll keep busy with his label, his shoes, his clothes, probably start a few nonprofits; maybe he'll try his hand at classical piano or writing mystery rags. He'll move the Nets to Brooklyn, buy a small country, then come out of retirement (again) just in time to release "Forty's the new Thirty." And it won't be then, either.

Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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