“Gotta admit a little bit I was sick of rap/ But despite that your boy is back.” ~”Kingdom Come”
Contrary to Cosmopolitan‘s popular belief, men do express thoughts and emotions. Many express it with complete, though occasionally indiscreet, honesty. Perhaps the misconception stems from how they must be prompted to emote. “Of course that dress doesn’t make you look fat, honey,” the anecdotal husband moans. “But it’s not making you look skinny.” When the (justified) indictments begin a’ rollin’, it’s understandable why some men apply circular logic to keep their mouths shut. But in most cases, when pressured enough even the steeliest character softens and opens up.
So, don’t call it a comeback so much as a call back: Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come is a response to the hoopla surrounding his own celebrity. Since his purported retirement with 2003’s Black Album, Sean Carter has arguably generated more public interest in Jay-Z the Icon. As president of Def Jam, the most widely recognized hip-hop record label, his executive decisions (or lack thereof) came under both commercial praise and artistic criticism. As an emcee, he made an extended prequel to his return by featuring himself on 2004’s hit remixes. As an entrepreneur, he expanded his profit-sharing 40/40 nightclub to another country. And as a celebrity, he stayed in headlines with his boycott of Cristal champagne and courting of his pop-queen counterpart Beyonce Knowles. By maintaining such a high profile, Jay-Z practically begged the world to beg for his return.
So, now that Jay-Z has what Jay-Z wants, what is really on Jay-Z’s mind? As expected from the above behavior, a whole litany of doubts and insecurities. From Kingdom Comes‘ opening dialogue ridiculing the idea of a black hustler going “straight” (meaning: legitimate business? corporate life? the Man’s suit and tie? who cares?) to its closing refrain of “life is just a dream” on “Beach Chair,” Jay makes clear he’d rather be elsewhere than in the rap game.
Appropriately, the first utterance from the main star sounds barely audible and embittered. “The game’s fucked up,” he slurs in the first line of opener “The Prelude” before invoking the erstwhile “I Used to Love H.E.R.” premise: The field has changed, so he feels he “needs a new hustle,” but quickly back-peddles, “I can’t leave you, so I do love you.” He’s stuck, so he sticks around? Hardly a vote of confidence. Jay doesn’t seem to realize that Common and countless others (will Nas be another?) sound genuine with the same commitment, because performing hip-hop is their prime, if not only, hustle. Jay, on the other hand, can afford to be aloof (and “retire”) because he has a successful side hustle (or four). So, if today’s hip-hop isn’t for Jay, and Jay’s got options, why come back?
Simple: Hova wants his Valhalla to be hip-hop. Jay uses Kingdom Come not just to reposition his self — be it as the hold-you-down homie (“Do U Wanna Ride”), the mature statesman (“30 Something”), or the God MC (“Oh My God”) — but to carve out his home. “I don’t know what life would be in H-I-P / H-O-P / Without H-O-V,” he wonders on the epileptic Superfreak title track, when the question is in fact the other way around. As much as Jay struts his “thirty is the new twenty” mantra, he still wants to prove he can run with the young lions. This anxiety over missing the artist’s life is ultimately what makes Kingdom Come both frustrating and refreshing.
The album’s emotional centerpiece, “Lost Ones,” appropriately summarizes this paradox. Over a spare, Flack-Hathaway-reminiscent Dr. Dre production, Jay recites a farewell letter to past partners from business, love and family. At times, the track can be disingenuous, because Hova sneaks in his shots under the veil of sincere reflection. “I ain’t even want to be famous,” he protests; several tracks later, he’s knee-deep in club fodder, like the hot disco mezz of “Hollywood” and strangely anachronistic “Anything.” Especially when flowing over the score of a surreptitious mover like Dre, Hov strays from empathy. However, he also articulates an unprecedented mixture of hurt, resign and resolve. Where other hip-hop dirges have reflected mostly in a visual or narrative sense (“T.R.O.Y.”), Jay deconstructs relationships in a colloquial manner (“So, we ain’t we/ It’s me and her”). Combined with his usual visual acumen (“Too much flossing/ too much Sam Rothstein”), “Lost Ones” is the closest Jay-Z comes to finding his way home.
So, is Kingdom Come worth taking a trip with your boy? For the sheer feat of stopping a career to restart it, yes, it is. Like watching an accident in slow motion, the “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is actually happening” wonder captivates us. Whether one is predisposed to hating the camel or praising the God, we all wonder what could be. And the album makes clear: Even the mightiest isn’t so sure. The album is weakest when Jay fronts like he knows where he’s going and strongest when he lets it all hang out. At its best, Kingdom Come is about possibility. At its worst, it pales in comparison to past albums. But, like Chrisette Michelle sings on “Lost Ones,” sometimes you have to lose some to win some.