Friday, November 17, 2006

Kingdom Come Review

"When I come back, wearin' the four-five
It ain't to play games with you, it's to maim you"

In these two lines from The Black Album, Jay-Z not only revealed how calculating his retirement ploy was, but also ensured that he would be as strong as ever for his inevitable comeback. Rather than the forty-five version of Jordan though, Jay feels more like number twenty-three...on the Wizards. Kingdom Come is still Jay-Z doing many of the things that make him great, but there's a contrived, re-heated element that recalls Jordan after his second retirement, for many of the same reasons.

Being a hipster is difficult. I mean, is this shirt a genuinely funny twist? Or is it funny because the W.W.Whatever thing is at least five years old, in which case one would actually be ridiculing the entire concept of the shirt existing, not just the ironic twist? Is it funny because it's not funny?

In the twilight of their careers, power went to both men's heads: Jordan could corral the perfect coach to stay out of his way, he could get any of the younger players to bow down to him. 'Hova has an infinite recording budget and any producer in the game lending his best beats. (In this way, he's always struck me as the hip-hop Steven Spielberg: Spielberg makes the best movies because he can get any script he wants, Jay makes the best rap songs because he can get any beat he wants. But that might be too many analogies for one paragraph.) Under this unprecedented power and responsibility, both Jordan and Jay relied upon their strengths at their own peril. "Never Change" indeed. Furthermore, when there was nothing left to prove for either man, both of them returned to his prospective game out of some odd sense of duty, as if his discipline--the corner of the world he had mapped out for himself and conquered--could not survive without him. To me, that can spell nothing but disaster, or at least mediocrity.

Three of the first four tracks on Kingdom Come are Just Blaze joints, and for a man who has excelled in the area of sequencing when even his superiors have failed (seriously, listen to Life After Death again) this seems like an oversight on 'Hov's part. Though he's done some of his best later work over Just Blaze beats, there isn't any real logic as to why theirs should be a successful partnership. Jay-Z's absolute biggest strength is his conversational delivery--more than wordplay or even timing. His conversational flow can make "Song Cry" heartfelt and intimate and honest or "Politics as Usual" flippant and bitter. Thing is, the predictable stabs and grounded samples J.B. patterns are so metric and measured that there's nowhere for Jay to breathe. By now, Jay should be rapping over some Lord of the Rings grandeur, but he's limited by Just Blaze's self-contained style. (That Allman Brothers flip on "Oh My God" is pretty gully though.)

"Hey, I'm only fourteen years older than you. And what's with that pocket square? Are you preparing for a magic trick?"
"How come no one was sleeping outside trying to get a Microsoft Zune? Cracka-ass cracka."

The entire album suffers from Jay ignoring similar shortcomings, but its greatest fault is that he has no idea who he is. Since around Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, his personality crisis has been one of the most compelling aspects of his work. From the streets and penthouses of America, he's been torn between being humble and messianic, being benevolent and ruthless, being accessible and untouchable. For four or five albums, that dynamic made him complex, but on Kingdom Come, even he seems confused.

Just take the way his latest songs have been released: The video for "Show Me What You Got," featuring Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Danica Patrick, premiered during game one of the World Series and was later chopped into a Budweiser commercial. Jay, if you really want the ears of white pentagenarians, you might as well just show up on "Dancing with the Stars"--it worked for Il Divo.

No homo.

Or, even better, take Mr. Carter's response to last year's Cam'ron dis. At the time, Jay's non-reaction to Killa Cam's "You Gotta Love It" was devastating; loud and clear, it announced that he was above such shenanigans. Then you listen to Jay's retaliation "Dig a Hole," which is admittedly one of Kingdom Come's most stripped down, forceful songs, and realize that his ignoring of the beef had nothing to do with superiority: he would rather sell it to us on an album than leak it to the streets. Responding a year late is the worst thing he could do in this situation.

This aimlessness and lack of purpose is all over Kingdom Come. On one hand, he's still rapping about selling drugs twenty years after the fact--which is kind of like me rapping about what it was like before I could read--and on the other, he's doing some weird celebrity name-dropping on the "Vogue"-ish breakdown of the miserable "Hollywood." When discussing how "street" this album is, it's important to note that one of the best cuts, "Beach Chair," is produced and featuring Chris Martin. (Here's hoping Martin becomes this generation's Phil Collins, the white songwriter that black people inexplicably accept.)

Like 50 Cent's The Massacre before it, each Kingdom Come song concept seems calculated: the one you play in the car ("Kingdom Come"), the one about people he knows who died ("Lost Ones"), the one dedicated to his mama ("I Made It"), the one about Hurricane Katrina. ("Minority Report," for which the most striking element is how realistic the helicopter sounds are--probably not the thing that should stick in my head.) Whether or not these tracks are any good, and some of them are, does not disguise the fact that Jay is following the "blueprint" he helped to reinvent. He should be above clunkers like, "Before Steve Jobs made the iPod/Was gettin' hand jobs--we call that internet." (?) After three years, his choruses should be more anthemic than "Show me what you got, purdy lay-day!"

You know I thug 'em, fuck 'em, love 'em, leave 'em
Cause I don't fuckin' need 'em
Take 'em out the hood
Keep 'em looking good
But I don't fuckin' feed em
First time they fuss I'm breezin'
Talking 'bout what's the reasons
I'm a pimp in every sense of the word, bitch
Better trust and believe 'em
In a cut where I keep 'em
'Til I need a nut
'Til I need to be (in) the guts
Then it's beep-beep and I'm pickin 'em up
Let 'em play with the dick in the truck
Many chicks wanna put Jigga fist in cuffs
Divorce him and split his bucks
Just because you got good head I'mma break bread
So you can be livin' it up
Shit, I part's wit nothin
Y'all be frontin'
Me give my heart to a woman?
Not for nothin' never happen
I'll be forever mackin'
...but we can still be piggybackin'?"

It's not all bad though. Jay is still at his best when his rhymes are concise and natural. He can still throw out, "Like Mike, I gotta stop playin' with these children" or "You know that mary j give you no more drama" and make you curse yourself for not thinking of it first. And of course, you still have some name-brand prodcution. Dr. Dre gives you four offerings of his damp snares and oft-imitated minor key piano tinkles. "Do U Wanna Ride" is an interesting direction for Kanye; there's something airy and ethereal about his keyboard setting and chords, but they're buoyed by a guttural, finger-picked bassline.

In many ways, weighing those compliments, the failure of Kingdom Come is one of expectations. If MC John Q. were to deliver this same record, Rolling Stone might be calling it a "sterling debut" (for all I know, Rolling Stone is clueless enough to write that about this album anyway). If this were any of the "toy rappers" populating your radio, the ubiquitous streets that create buzz for hip-hop albums would be hustling and bustling. But, like his basketball corollary did with his own former greatness, Jay-Z has overshadowed anything he could possibly accomplish now.

During the Jordan retirement tour with the Wizards, the constant problem coach Doug Collins faced was alloting minutes to his star. Obviously, the forty-year-old version of Jordan couldn't play more than twenty minutes a night, and he probably would have been more successful as a sixth man. But you can't start rookies and bring in the [second] best player ever off the bench, can you? In a similar way, the new Jay-Z album has to be great, right? He's still the best around, right? As he said on what was supposed to be his swan song, "All good things must come to an end."

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