Well, that wasn't much of a retirement. A little more than three years ago, Jay-Z announced the end of his rap career, concluding the last song on his "final" album by bellowing, "I'm about to go golfing, man … I might even have me a cappuccino, fuck it!" But the greatest MC of the last decade—arguably the greatest ever—didn't spend too much time on the links. He had a new day job, as chief executive of Def Jam records, and a full-time gig as a tabloid fixture and boyfriend of Beyoncé. And for a retired rapper, he spent a lot of time rapping. He released two new albums (a mash-up experiment with alt-metal stars Linkin Park and a collaboration with R. Kelly), performed on concert stages and at awards shows, and appeared as a guest on dozens of tracks, often winking and nudging about when his retirement might end. "Dear Summer," on rapper Memphis Bleek's album 534 (2005), was a typically coy anthem, a summertime hit about how Jay-Z couldn't make any more summertime hits: "Dear summer, I know you gon' miss me/ For we been together like Nike Airs and crisp tees … / Gimme couple years, shit I might just sneak in/ A couple words and like Peaches and Herb/ We'll be reunited and it feels so hood/ Have the whole world saying, 'How you still so good?' "
Jay-Z's nonretirement officially ends today with the arrival of his new CD, Kingdom Come. The rapper has done his best to turn this into a media spectacle, including barnstorming seven cities in 24 hours on the eve of the album release, but it would have been an event had he laid lower in recent months. In any case, he devotes little time to reflecting on his sabbatical. "I'm sorry—what can I say? I'm back," he shrugs at the outset of the single "Show Me What You Got" before launching into familiar boasts about his rapping supremacy and kingly wealth. As ever, his flow is magnificent—listening to a Jay-Z record always feels a bit like zipping down the Autobahn in a very expensive car. But while his voice still carries an ideal mixture of imperial confidence and sang-froid—dipping into a mock-plaintive whisper when he wants to deliver a particularly stinging line—the lyrics here land with a thud: "Tell these other dudes it's a wrap/ Get the fuck out the throne, you clone/ The king's back."
Kingdom Come is the worst of Jay-Z's 11 solo albums. In part, it's an issue of beats. The rapper lined up a group of all-star producers—Kanye West, the Neptunes, Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, Swizz Beats—but most of the music plods. (Notable exceptions are Just Blaze's ebullient break-beat assault in "Show Me What You Got" and "Trouble," in which Dr. Dre mimics the screechy, synthetic production style of Timbaland.) But the real problem is Jay-Z, who seems to have left his muse behind on one of his St. Tropez holidays. He makes lots of noise about his royal restoration and how badly hip-hop has missed him, but memorable punch lines are scarce. "I'm hip-hop's savior/ So after this flow you might owe me a favor," he raps on the title track.
That kind of messianism has been Jay-Z's bread and butter—this is a guy who nicknamed himself J-Hova years ago. But for a god, he sounds a bit insecure about how the landscape has shifted under his feet. In the album-opening "The Prelude," he touts his drug-dealing past: "I'm just a hustler disguised as a rapper/ In fact you can't fit this hustle inside of a wrapper/ Back when crack was what these pills are/ I was a real star." Jay-Z is out to prove that he is as gritty as crack rappers like the Clipse and Young Jeezy (one of Jay-Z's marquee artists at Def Jam), but that's a fool's errand: He's been a star for too many years, and spent too much time bragging about jet-setting, to play a convincing hoodlum. Then there's "I Made It," a sentimental up-from-the-ghetto song dedicated to Jay-Z's mom, which might have made sense circa 1999, but today sounds a little desperate: an anxious attempt to remind listeners that he's a bootstrapper.
The question is, what should Jay-Z be rapping about these days? The Brooklyn street hustler shtick is anachronistic, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous songs pay diminishing returns: How many more times can he keep a straight face, rapping about his fancy vacations and his famous girlfriend's "Birkin bags"? It wouldn't hurt if Jay-Z looked inside a little, talked less about his penthouse's decor and more about how it feels to be up there. He feints at this in "Minority Report," Kingdom Come's Katrina song: "Sure I ponied up a mill, but I didn't give my time/ So in reality I didn't give a dime, or a damn/ I just put my monies in the hands of the same people that left my people stranded … / Left them folks abandoned/ Damn, that money that we gave was just a band-aid." But such moments of introspection are few and far between—Jay-Z is brilliant, but unlike his onetime protégé Kanye West, he's never been particularly deep.
Listening to this sluggish album, you can't help but think back to Jay-Z's original decision to hang up the mic. Back then, Jay-Z pled boredom—that he was tired of being alone at the top—and strongly implied that he'd hit a wall artistically. ("What more can I say?" he asked on The Black Album.) There have been whispers around the music industry that Kingdom Come was a business decision—Def Jam needed a hit album—and the record sure sounds like the work of a CEO crunching numbers, not a rapper responding to his muse. What's really missing is the crackling excitement that Jay-Z has brought to his best work. For comparison, listen to Lil Wayne, the New Orleans rapper who has lately taken to calling himself "the best rapper alive," a none-too-subtle dig at Jay-Z. Lil Wayne recently recorded a raucous, hilarious freestyle rap over the "Show Me What You Got" beat—he co-opts Jay-Z's music, tweaks his metaphors, and delivers a song twice as good as the original. The rap is meant to sound like a passing of the guard, and it does. And this may be just what the doctor ordered. A cruddy album and a butt-whipping by a young rapper—now Jay-Z really has something to come back from.