Sunday, October 29, 2006

Checking in on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come

Another track from Jay-Z's highly anticipated coming-out-of-retirement album Kingdom Come leaked yesterday, bringing us up to three total. Given that The Black Album featured 13 songs (not counting the Just Blaze-produced intro), we're almost a quarter of the way into this thing.

Which means now might be a good time to take stock in what we have.

The first song to leak was the title track, a Just Blaze number that brazenly samples from Rick James' "Super Freak." This in and of itself is a major story, considering that one of the biggest rap-pop hits of all time, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" sampled the same track. In addition to making Hammer millions of dollars that he would infamously lose in the blink of an eye, that song also became a blight on hip-hop - the kind of derivative, sellout music that submerged the artistic and cultural implications of rap in favor of a stack of cash. In other words, producing a song that sounds anything like "U Can't Touch This" would be tantamount to career suicide.

Yet Blaze pulls it off, obscuring the loop enough to make it sound like something else entirely. The most interesting thing about this beat is that the super producer just did it for fun, experimenting to see if there was a way to make one of the most recognizable songs in pop music sound new and unique. When he stumbled upon something that he felt worked, he put it on his MySpace page as the background music. Within hours, the word had spread and his page was generating thousands of hits. Another highly respected producer, ?uestlove of The Roots, learned of Blaze's feat and made arrangements for the track to find its way into Jay-Z's hands.

Which is where Hova comes in. The song (and album) title apparently come from a Superman comic book. The thinking here is that hip-hop is in need of saving and Jay-Z is the superhero to do it. With lines like "up in the office you might know him as Clark, but just when you thought the whole world fell apart, take off the blazer and loosen up the tie, then step into the booth, Superman is alive," the "Presidential MC" is definitely taking the superhero role to heart. He also makes a reference to being "Peter Parker" and "Bruce Wayne" and tells us that when we need him to "just throw our Roc signs in the air." The chorus builds on this by saying that he's the "King of New York" but that his reign extends beyond New York: "Not only NYC, I'm hip-hop's savior, so after this flow you might owe me a favor."

The song has all the components to be a monster. The now-legendary Blaze flip of "Super Freak," the comic book imagery, the superhero comparisons, and the simple fact that it is the first track off of Jay-Z's new album. It all adds up to something pretty special. You can imagine how disappointing it is then, that "Kingdom Come" is ultimately an average song.

For all the technical skill that Blaze displayed in devising the track, it doesn't sound big and expensive like so many lead singles need to in this day and age. It doesn't really have club appeal, but it's not a street burner either. To be honest, it comes across as a little boring. And while Jay-Z's lyrics are colorful and fun, they are a far cry from his best. Even setting aside the fact that Jay-Z is at his very best when telling stories of his life ("D'Evils," "Where I'm From," "Moment of Clarity"), this isn't Hova at his boastful best. It's like his heart isn't in it.

The worst news? "Kingdom Come" is by far the best track of the trio.

The second song to leak was "Show Me What You Got," the track that is everywhere right now. You might have seen it at halftime of the Bears-Cardinals game on Monday Night Football, but if you missed it then, you've probably seen the video (staring Danica Patrick) on MTV or the Budweiser commercial version. The song is supposed to harken back to Public Enemy's "Show Em Watcha Got" and it features the horns from that very track. The problem? They are the same horns used on the Wreckx 'N Effects abomination "Rump Shaker." Suffice to say, this isn't one of Just Blaze's best creations.

As for the lyrics on "Show Me What You Got," they feel rushed and all too familiar. Jay-Z makes multiple reference to being the Michael Jordan of rap ("In the zone like the homie 2-3" and "I am the Mike Jordan of recording") then discusses women and his latest favorite champagne (something called Ace of Spades). It's not what I'd call original material. Everything feels washed out and recycled and frankly, it just isn't very good.

The latest leaked track is called "Lost Ones" and is produced by Dr. Dre. It borrows the chorus from Lauren Hill's old track dissing Wyclef and in this one, Jay-Z discusses the unraveling of the relationships surrounding Rocafella Records, the death of his nephew, and his breakup with Beyonce. On paper, it sounded like it could be one for the books. Instead, it is one for the trash can. The best way to describe it is with one word: Lazy. I haven't heard Jay throw this many poor versus on a song since The Blueprint 2 when he embraced his Jigga Man side and had Timbaland produce half the tracks. Even Dre's beat is lazy; just a piano loop that you can hear on half of the "heartfelt" rap songs from the late 90's.

Anyway, we've heard a quarter of the album that is supposed to "save hip-hop" and so far it isn't much to get excited about. I had to go back and listen to Reasonable Doubt just to get the taste out of my mouth.

Here's to hoping that the rest of the album gets a lot better. Of course, even if it doesn't, it is still Jay-Z, so it will better than pretty much anything else out there.

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