This is a state of emergency
His album cover is an eerie shade of red. The collar on his jacket is popped. His hat is tipped to the side, revealing a New York Yankees logo. The “PARENTAL ADVISORY” sticker is slapped on the corner. His look is ambitious, eager, fiery. The sticker is shiny silver. The man is Jay-Z. The album is Kingdom Come. He’s back.
Or did he never leave in the first place? Sure, he had a retirement concert, and he said he “got tired of rap,” but to say Jay-Z disappeared from the limelight would be a gross overstatement. Appearing at various concerts and making guest appearances on albums and TV shows, Jay-Z’s retirement was more like Kiss’ “Farewell Tour.” So, when Jay-Z released Kingdom Come on November 21, it was seen as the “comeback record,” expectations and hype impossibly high.
Hov did not quite satisfy the buzz. On paper, Kingdom Come might possibly be the most star-studded lineup a hip-hop record has ever seen. (Yes, it rivals Dr. Dre’s 2001.) Production duties go to a wide variety of stars ranging from The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, Kanye West, and — heck — even Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Guest appearances on the album include John Legend, Beyoncé, Pharell Williams, and Martin himself. With an arsenal like this, how could President Carter go wrong?
He went wrong in two ways: substandard beats and substandard lyrics. His verses are predominantly self-conscious and cocky, and his hooks are uninteresting, lacking the catchiness of his old material.
In “30 Something,” a fabulous bass line and pounding drum pattern barrel their way through an otherwise monotonous track with a contrived string pattern. And Jay-Z’s lyrics are just as stagnant as the music. He raps about how he’s hip and cool as a 30-something-year-old, not letting age affect his lifestyle of luxury and class: “I’m young enough to know the right car to buy but grown enough not to put rims on it,” he claims.
Although some of the Dre beats are a bit of a letdown (the boring “Lost Ones” and generic club-banger “Trouble” are tracks to be forgotten) and Jay’s lyrics a bit shallow, there are still some interesting ideas going on in this album. On “Minority Report,” Dre finally picks up his sincerity and integrity, dropping a sparse drumbeat with dark piano and thunderstorm sound effects: It sounds like a beat Dre would have made for Eminem five years ago, a la “The Way I Am.” The beat allows Jay-Z to use his position as a respected rapper and cultural icon to dabble in Katrina-based political statements: “The commander-in-chief just flew by. Did he stop? No... [He] ignored ‘em.” Finally, Jay stops focusing on himself and says something significant.
The album’s highlights are the punch of Just Blaze, a producer who Jay-Z signed to his own label, Roc-a-fella Records (Jay-Z has since climbed the ranks to CEO of Island/Def Jam). “Oh My God” features a surprisingly appropriate sample of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” subduing intensity in the chorus and then exploding in the verse. Jay borrows a Kanye line and raps, “If this is your first time hearin’ this, you are about to experience somethin’ so cold.”
Blaze’s “Kingdom Come” is a fabulous New York anthem. This marks one of the few points in the record where Jigga’s confidence and self-praise seems justified. With Rick James’ “Super Freak” sampled in the background, the opening lines come out swinging with “I don’t know what life will be in h-i-p-h-o-p would be without the boy h-o-v.” The hook has Hov chanting, “I came to New York, New York / Not only NYC / I’m hip-hop’s savior, so after this flow you might owe me a favor,” over the dense rock drumming and slamming high-end piano lines.
The CD’s first single, “Show Me What You Got,” samples the saxophone from “Darkest Light” by Lafayette Afro Rock Band. After the awesome “This is a state of emergency … Wachoo want me to do? I’m sorry, but I’m back,” the tracks blasts into an epic track with big-band horns, flashy piano glissandos, and possibly the most intricate drum beat ever to appear on a hip-hop record. Somehow, Jay-Z gets his flow together and syncopates with cocky shots like, “I am the Mike Jordan of recording” and “The king’s back!” It’s the confident swagger and comical wordplay that made us fall in love with Jay-Z in the first place.
The most interesting track on the record is undoubtedly Chris Martin’s “Beach Chair,” both musically and lyrically. Airy drums and melodic keyboard lines support Coldplay’s frontman throughout. Though somewhat introspective, Jay’s flow is impeccable. Even in his moments of inner soul-searching, Jay is still as intense as always: “I’m not afraid of dyin’, I’m afraid of not tryin.’” And of course, it wouldn’t be a Jay-Z album without a fortune cookie at the end: “This is Jay every day no compromise / No compass comes with this life just eyes / So to map it out you must look inside / Sure books can guide you but your heart defines you.”
Sure, this isn’t H-to-the-izz-O’s best record, but there are definitely a few tracks that will someday make it to his greatest hits, and rightfully so. It doesn’t top Blueprint, or even the Black Album, but Jay-Z is still wearing his heart on his sleeve, letting us eager fans into the secrets of his fantastical life. And as his fan club, we can only thank him for every minute of it, even if some parts are better than others.