Thursday, December 21, 2006

Album Review: Kingdom Come by Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s comeback album has been out for almost a full month now – even longer if you count the “Internet Release” (also know as album leak). And for the most part, it has been knocked down and then kicked and then covered with dirt by most Internet music sites.

I acknowledge that Kingdom Come was disappointing, but was it worthy of such vitriol? I don’t think so. In fact, I was careful to let this one soak in before rushing to judgment (like I did with the first three leaked tracks off the album) and I’ve come to the conclusion that Kingdom Come is much better than it is getting credit for. Maybe not a classic, but not a piece of crap either.

Of course, when confronting a strong opposition, one must try to determine where the proverbial fork in the road takes place. Why do so many critics my age hate this album (Tom Breihan from The Village Voice, Byron Crawford from XXL, and Pitchfork, to name a few), when I like it? I’ve got a few possible theories on this, each of which will be examined on a sliding scale that ranges from “no chance” to “sounds good to me” (with “doubtful,” “maybe,” and “likely” as the middle options). Here we go.

Theory #1 – Subject Matter. One of the biggest criticisms of the album is that Jay-Z’s content isn’t what it used to be. It seems that all the rapping about being a CEO and the bragging about possessions and trips and celeb friends isn’t going over so well. I understand that, but my question is … since when? This is America, land of capitalism and home of the “anyone can make it” dream. Now that Jay has “made it” why wouldn’t he talk about it? This is his life now and it wouldn’t make any sense to rap about hugging the block or cooking crack in a dank duplex. I mean, seriously. Plus, this complaint is disingenuous. Brag rapping has been loved and respected for years in hip hop and just this year, the Clipse received heaps of critical love despite spending well over half their album (which I loved, by the way) rapping about all the stuff they have. So to criticize Jay-Z for boasting is hypocritical.

Besides, few can brag like Jigga. In the (admittedly overwrought) Just Blaze stadium epic “Oh My God” Jay-Z pretty much lays it out there. (“Coming through roofless/ yeah, your boy ruthless/ like Ice Cub was/ turn the whole city on, I’m the new plug/ So if this is your first time hearing this/ you are about to experience/ someone so cold/ a journey seldom seen/ the American Dream/ from the bottom to the top of the globe/ they call me Hov.”)

Not only that, but honing in on the brag raps fails to look at the whole package. While it might have been nice to see Jay use a more narrative structure for his new CEO status (maybe some sort of running gangster movie theme, like all the old Pain N Da Ass skits), he makes up for it by throwing in a few other interesting topics. He discusses everything from his ascension to the corporate world to the push and pull of being a born hustler (in “Prelude”), from a feud with Cam’ron (“Dig a Hole”) to Hurricane Katrina (“Minority Report”), and from far-reaching Biblical themes to the end of his career (and life). It’s far from a terrible mix, topically and thematically. And the Hurricane Katrina commentary, in particular, is extremely powerful (“Sure I ponied up a mil/ but I didn’t give my time/ so in reality, I didn’t give a dime/ or a damn/ just put my money in the hands/ of the same people that left my people stranded.”)

Strength of Theory #1 – Doubtful.

Theory #2 – Lyrical Skill. I’ll be the first to admit that this album doesn’t have the usual plethora of Press Rewind moments from One Take Jay, and he probably does spend too much time using the whisper voice (the one from “Allure”). That said, it also isn’t fair to measure him by his own extremely high bar. Compared to most of the stuff coming out in 2006, Hova is still an elite lyricist. He may not be hungry like he was on Reasonable Doubt or at the height of his game like on The Blueprint, which explains some of the repetitive lines and lazy rhymes, but he’s still Jay. Which means you are going to get a lot of effortless verses that fuse intelligence and wit in bold, brash, decisive strokes.

From clever little lines like “Guess who’s back/ Since this is a New Era I got a new hat” (“Prelude”) and “Kingpin of the ink pen/ monster of the double entendre” (“Do U Wanna Ride”) to classically complex Jay-Z (“Think I’m in the office, I’m off the grind?/ That’s how kids become orphans, ya lost your mind?/ I keep my enemies close/ I give ‘em enough rope/ they put themselves in the air/ I just kick away the chair” – that last part perfectly describes Sacha Baron Cohen’s style of comedy in Borat, by the way), he still has “it.”

If those aren’t good enough examples, there is always this gem from “Beach Chair,” which layers pop culture, with soul-baring questions, all while employing multiple meanings of a word (for which I am a total sucker): “Not afraid of dyin’/ I’m afraid of not tryin’/ every day, hit every wave like I’m Hawaiian/ I don’t surf the net/ no I ain’t never been on MySpace/ too busy lettin’ my voice vibrate/ carvin’ out my space.”

Of course, gems like that are offset by some meandering efforts, like the up-and-comer bashing on “Trouble” and the excessive spelling on the horrendous Neptunes-produced “Anything.” So I can see the complaint.

Strength of Theory #2 – Maybe.

Theory #3 – Beats. One complaint I can get behind is that Jay-Z didn’t exactly load up with the best beats for Kingdom Come. When I sort my iTunes music by producer, I can’t help but notice that many of the best producers’ finest beats have been for Jay. Kanye West and Just Blaze are the primary examples of this, but even guys like DJ Premier, the Neptunes, Eminem, Rick Rock, and Dr. Dre (“The Watcher”) have busted out some career-best type performances when providing a track for Jay-Z.

Um, not this time. Just Blaze has three entries on the album: “Kingdom Come” is arguably a great beat, but “Oh My God” and “Show Me What You Got” are just average. Dre provided three cuts, but only “Trouble” (the Dre quality without the Dre genericness) is a standout and it turns out that Snoop got the best of the Dr. Dre Fall 2006 Collection. The Neptunes track is horrible. The beats for “Hollywood” and “I Made It” are not good. When the Chris Martin-produced (complete with expected alt-pop distortion) “Beach Chair” is a standout, you know you have some problems.

However, it really isn’t what is on the album that is the issue, it is what’s NOT on Kingdom Come that is most noticeable. Timbaland is arguably one of the hottest producers in the music industry right now (check out tracks ranging from Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy/Back” to Snoop’s “Get a Light” to Young Jeezy’s “3 A.M.”) and has collaborated with Jay in the past (12 Jay-Z tracks on eight albums, by my count) … so where is he? DJ Premier, anyone? Just one Kanye West song? (Although, it should be noted that “Do U Wanna Ride” is a good one – a subtler version of Kanye.) Even 9th Wonder or Bink would have been a welcomed addition at this point.

Strength of Theory #3 – Likely.

Theory #4 – He’s Too Old. People have been taking cracks at “30 Something” and insinuating that Jay-Z is too old to make a good hip hop record. This seems insane on a few levels. For starters, he just turned 37, which means that he was 34 when he put out a certifiable classic in the form of The Black Album. Is 37 that much older than 34? It’s not like he turned 35 and started aging in dog years. Not only that, but there are plenty of hip hop stars picking up steam in their 30’s. Nas’ new one is a heater and he’s 33. Ghostface was rap’s critical darling for ’06 and he’s 36. Hell, Snoop Dogg is as old as dirt and he just put out his best album in 13 years. Yes, Jay’s new record was built for an “adult audience.” No, he’s not too old to be good.

Strength of Theory #4 – No Chance.

Theory #5 – Backlash.. Let’s face it, we live in a society that loves to bring people down. This is the pop culture universe that built 50 Cent up and then tore him down in the span of 12 months. And that’s just the obvious hip hop example. There was Leo after Titanic (it took him over five years and a half dozen incredible roles to get all the way back). It started happening with Dwayne Wade during the NBA Finals last year when people started complaining about all the calls he got. It just happened this week regarding SNL’s new digital short “A Special Box,” which should have been enjoyed by all as a truly funny sketch, but was instead beat down lest we get too excited ala the “Narnia Rap.” It’s happening with Lost. It will probably happen with Sacha Baron Cohen if it hasn’t already. And so on and so forth.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jay-Z would get the same treatment. After all, he’s everywhere these days. Running Def Jam, owning the Nets, dating Beyonce, appearing on Budweiser commercials, doing the Hanger Tour, popping into the booth on Monday Night Football, you name it. Naturally, people are going to push back. Jay even saw this coming, rapping on Trouble that it’s “just a matter of time before the steady hate/ starts to overflow and then the levee breaks.”

Of course, people won’t stay down on him forever, which means that his next album is already money in the bank. The same critics slamming him now will be frothing at the mouth to redeem him by the time the 10th disc rolls around.

Strength of Theory #5 – Sounds good to me.

The Verdict. Based on my irrefutable methodology (that’s sarcasm, people), it seems that Jigga’s album is getting the cold shoulder mainly because of natural backlash, followed by shaky beats, and possibly a letdown on the lyricism front. Which means that people are crushing this thing for reasons that have little to do with Jay-Z. Nice.

Like I said at the top, I am somewhat fond of Kingdom Come. It’s certainly not a classic, thanks in large part to a rough patch in the middle of the album (tracks 7-10). And the beats could certainly have been better. Still, this is the one of the best rappers ever putting in solid work. No complaints here. In fact, among Jay-Z albums (excluding the R. Kelly fiascos, of course), I put it right in the middle:

1. The Blueprint
2. Reasonable Doubt
3. The Black Album
4. Hard Knock Life
5. Kingdom Come
6. Vol. 1
7. Vol. 2
8. The Dynasty
9. The Blueprint 2*

(* Note: I am referring to the double disc album that was originally released, not the nicely salvaged The Blueprint 2.1 re-release.)

The Score: 7.9

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