A Mogul in a Muddle: The Un-Retired Jay-Z

On what was supposed to have been his last album ever, Jay-Z made a little joke: “When I come back like Jordan, wearing the 4-5 / it ain’t to play games with you / it’s to aim at you, probably maim you!” Never mind the tense trouble and clunky rhyme—Jay-Z’s meaning was clear: His retirement was only going to be kinda-sorta, and he wanted everyone to know that when he tapped back in, he would be expecting us to be on our best behavior. No teasing, no ankle-biting, no complaining about how this or that had just been a marketing move—we were to cover our heads, beg for mercy and hope that when he reloaded, the self-described “God MC” wouldn’t look in our direction.

Three years later, as Jay-Z himself puts it, “the worst retirement ever” is over: Kingdom Come (Roc-A-Fella), the new album he so half-heartedly swore would never happen, has been released. Turns out it’s an encore that no one needed—especially not Jay-Z, who sounds like he doesn’t quite know why he’s doing this. The ostensible impetus falls somewhere in between “the game needs me” and “I need the game” (I’m paraphrasing), but the fact that Jay can’t decide for sure means that Kingdom Come flounders. Imagine Superman standing in the middle of the road, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

This is not an acceptable state of affairs for a guy whose success has been built on a keen sense of narrative and dramatic timing—a guy who dropped the curtain on his recording career just as he was ascending to the throne of Def Jam Recordings and positioning himself as the youngest elder statesman in rap. The story we were supposed to tell our kids was that Jay-Z was a drug dealer from the Marcy Projects who’d become the best rapper alive, only to bow out at the pinnacle and conquer the corporate world with the prettiest girl in R&B at his side. A good story, and Jay-Z stayed more or less faithful to it for three years. But now he’s unraveled the legend.

To call Kingdom Come a disappointment would be an understatement (but then again, Jay-Z’s track record has led us to expect outrageous triumphs). Until a few recent duds, every guest appearance he’d made from behind the president’s desk at Def Jam felt like a taunt, a reminder that he could do this rapping stuff better than anyone—but that he chose not to. He had better things to do. He crammed all his ideas into 35-second verses shoehorned into tracks made by his friends and protégés. The constraints helped him work up that rags-to-riches “hunger” that everyone always wants from rappers.

Un-retiring, then, was the swiftest way to grow fat and floppy.

Some will argue that Jay-Z has nothing left to say, but that’s missing the point. All Jay-Z ever rapped about was himself—his excellence was in his ingenuity, his ability to come up with more creative ways than anyone else to flaunt success (“Bricks to billboards, grams to Grammies”) and destroy his enemies (“We kill you motherfuckin’ ants with a sledgehammer”). That ingenuity is not in evidence on Kingdom Come: Most of the time, Jay sounds like he’s quoting himself. The best jokes happen when he mixes his well-oiled sensibility as precocious young rap star with the jargon of Wall Street. On the title track, he boasts of “showin’ growth” and being “so in charge”; on “30 Something,” he says he “don’t got the bright watch” but “the right watch.”

And so, despite (or perhaps because of) the grown-man hubris, the only time Jay betrays any urgency is on the Dr. Dre–produced “Trouble,” in which he threatens to get the “the papers writing stories like: ‘didn’t they know, this what happened when they made that rapper CEO.’” And later, to his young detractors: “Probably hustled with your pops / go ask your parents / it’s apparent, you’re staring at a legend who / put a few little niggas in they place before / trying to eat without saying their grace before / blasphemous bastards, get your faith restored / you’re viewing your version of the lord, God MC, little nigga, applaud! / Or forever burn in the fire that I spit at y’all.”

Most of the time, Kingdom Come makes Jay-Z sounds like a guy who used to like being a rapper. Over the course of an hour-long album, he’s unable to articulate a reason why he felt compelled to undermine his own carefully constructed mythology. The songs aren’t worth the damage done. Think Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, or Terminator 3. Jay-Z sounds as cocksure as ever, but something has been lost to his indecision.

A Mogul in a Muddle: The Un-Retired Jay-Z