Kingdom Come

(Roc-A-Fella; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

Favorites: fuck ‘em. I’ve got favorites like I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome; I paw affectionately at the cherished albums of artists who return to the dank basement of fandom to attach electrodes to my teats. Thanks for the tears, Weezer. RZA, I hardly knew thee. I haven’t listened to Idlewild in months. Jigga, what?

Yeah, I’ve got favorites. I had them. I’ve got a favorite track on Kingdom Come. It’s the shortest on the album, “Prelude,” a lilting tossed-off kiss-off kick-off, all effortless flute shimmer and crashing-wave string sighs, along with some disses and advice: “Nigga your hooks did it / Your lyrics didn’t / Your gangsta look did it / So I would write it / If ya’ll could get it / Bein’ intricate’ll get you wood, critics / On the internet, they like / ‘You should spit it -- ’ / I’m like, ‘You should bite it’ / Nigga, that’s good business / [Chuckle].” If this critic had any say, Hov’d spit it like The Blueprint (2001), My Favorite record in a tough discography, the most effortlessly, truthfully emotional rap album since Illmatic (1994) -- argue it -- and textually complicated enough to give an English prof a 3/4 hard-on. I’m not asking you to trust my favorites, though, because My Favorites are dead. I have no favorites.

So what I, critic on the internet, want is not Jigga’s concern; business is. That’s fine, but then what’s good business? Well, The Black Album (2003) was good business, that large-hearted, glad-handing manifesto, Jigga’s own super sweet sixteen party that went off, really, without a hitch -- Lamborghini-shaped cake and all. It was barely the classic it claimed to be (methinks a 74%), but it wasn’t supposed to be; its function was sociological, solidifying Jay's self-imposed rulership among a wide demographic and effectively lionizing itself through sheer force. That silly Linkin Park mash-up (2004) that followed was a logical extension of this, another way to get those raps heard, to overtly hammer in lean Reasonable Doubt (1995) Jay-Z’s transformation to the God MC, J-Hova (“Izzo” [2001]). “PSA” exploded, “What More Can I Say” trumpeted, “99 Problems” “rocked,” and the rest was good enough in different enough ways to make the album indefinitely ubiquitous. Three years in, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is still some context-sensitive hot shit. But look at this rating: Kingdom Come is a failure. It is both not what I want (another Blueprint) and not good business (another Black Album). Its problems are both wide-reaching and acute, an album full of tiny misfired rhymes and shiny-dildo drum hits that add up to what I’ll go ahead and label Jigga’s second worst record, after 2002’s abysmal The Blueprint 2.0 (41%).

We aspirant “writer” types discuss with religious diligence our “angle,” the way we plan to tackle a piece of writing. We assume all stories are already written, but then find the new take on it; that’s the angle. Jay-Z’s always been a master of the angle, rhyming about nothing but doing it with wit, style, and absurd ease. But a writer without an angle always knows it, and so the writer writes unsurely, clinging to half-cooked paragraphs and unnecessary wordings, clunky at times and anemic at others, starting a sentence in one place and ending it somewhere else. The writer flounders, self-loathes, feels “blocked.” I’ve been there a thousand times, taunted by the cursor and utterly ashamed at my inability to put words down. I know those waters, and I rejoice that I’m not in them now, because my angle hangs in front of me, glinting in the sunlight: Jigga didn’t have one.

This is why, three years into “retirement,” he’s still rapping to his moms about making it, as he does on the correctly titled “I Made It.” This is why, on the utterly toothless Hurricane Katrina jam “Minority Report,” both Ne-Yo’s feeble “It seems like we don’t even care” and Jay’s fuzzy, flavorless lyric are outpaced and outclassed by the sampled Tom Brokaw jeremiad that opens it. This is why the title track’s chorus makes no sense: “Not only NYC, I’m hip hop’s savior / So after this flow you might owe me a favor.” So…now the guy that famously shunned God for Gotti is suggesting that I may end up having to pick up his laundry? This is why, after Just Blaze handed him a beat like “Show Me What You Got,” he said nothing dreadfully before Lil’ Wayne depantsed him by saying nothing extravagantly. This is why, rather than attempt thrice to out-shout the drums on the otherwise pretty hot “Anything,” he opts to let Usher consume approximately 70% of the song. This is why “30 Something” features absurd non-lines like “Still here / Still here / Like Mike got to stop playing with these children / Yeah.”

I’m not nitpicking. Any Jay album, even precious Reasonable Doubt, could be picked apart like this, and out of context a lot of his lines look ridiculous. The problem with Kingdom Come is the overwhelming surplus of examples, and the fact that tight observations spike up nearby these duds, like when on “30 Something” he breathes easily, “I’m young enough to know the right car to buy / But grown enough not to put rims on it.” That’s a Hova line, clean and slow and smartasser than fuck. His inflection and breath control throughout the first verse of “Dig A Hole” recall those moments on In My Lifetime (1996) when he was tempering the righteous thirst of the debut with quenching mainstream success. But moments like these are the exceptions, and they stick out as such; Jay-Z spends most of the record assuring us (and himself) that he is still the greatest living emcee, which is something he normally does, but he also normally puts out a record that backs up the argument.

What finally, resolutely damns Kingdom Come, though, isn’t Jay-Z. It’s brutal to hear him fall off like this, but, shit, he’s got Beyonce and Budweiser to worry about these days. If nothing else, “Show Me What You Got” prepped listeners for an album of phoned-in pseudo-punchlines. No, it’s the wan, uninspired beats that ultimately make Kingdom Come so embarrassing for Jigga and so very unpleasant for the listener. Dr. Dre needs to be put in a cage. His feeble under-production, full of tired string hits, empty drums, and bottom-tier late-90s schmaltz-hop, undermines every intention of this record. “Trouble” burps like a broken No Limit mixtape, and the unparalleled debacle “Minority Report” was doomed from the start by Dre’s sickeningly self-important attempts at gravitas. Kingdom Come’s hype alone should’ve bought it a dozen beats of unrivaled fury and invention, it ought to be bombastic and ostentatious and new, it ought to be pressed on an HD-DVD. And to be fair, the three consecutive Just Blaze beats that follow “Prelude” are dense blasts of horns and high-kicking tempo shifts. After that, Dr. Dre shoots both of Jay’s feet off, Kanye out-maudlins Kanye at his muddiest, and the stage is set for fucking Chris Martin to drop the hottest beat on the record.

I know; get off it. It sucks to come out on the other end of this review naked but for a Chris Martin jam, but there it is. “Beach Chair” at last finds Jigga embracing the pop audience he so effortlessly commands, a move as shrewd as the Linkin Park mash-up but infinitely more rewarding. Harpsichord plucks bounce off two-chord string changes, industrial snare hits drag up distorted cymbals, and in this Just Blaze-less haze Jay spits verses that would’ve been a neat discursion on The Black Album but placed here come with earth-shattering urgency. This is a glimpse of the album that could’ve been: a missive from the God MC staggering off into new territory, a CEO kicking out the type of hip hop that maybe a CEO would like, a mess of contradictory contradictions but brilliant as fireworks all the same. I wish that album had come out; I might not twitch every time I look at those Facebook pages begging to know my Favorite everything.

As it is, I don’t have favorites anymore; Kingdom Come took that from me. It sucks. When first announced, I didn’t hate on the whole retirement thing. Another deft move, branch into new venues to keep the spotlight on him. After eight albums in eight years and who can calculate what magnitude an influence on pop culture, it seemed time to cut off the supply and let the demand boil over, like he told Memphis Bleek way back when. Why not ape Michael Jordan some more? Jay-Z was the biggest name in pop music, and bigger things seemed possible. The scheme worked, too. His charisma carried over, and his very presence became a sort of blessing, his very self a pseudo-event: the Sinatra of our day. Lebron’s cover of Sports Illustrated was big, but hanging with Jigga was bigger. But it was implicit in the deal that coming out of retirement was to be twice as magnanimous as going into it. So when I heard the title Kingdom Come, I thought, “Well, whatever, Jay: come, Kingdom.” Now I’ve heard Kingdom Come, and I think, well, whatever, maybe it’s time for him to abdicate. I hear that Lupe kid put out a good record.