If Jay-Z hadn't "retired" in 2003, his new album, "Kingdom Come," in stores today, would sound like a perfectly serviceable follow-up to his acclaimed "The Black Album."
But because he has made such a multimedia spectacle of his "comeback," it's hard not to be a little disappointed in the mere mortal nature of "Kingdom Come."
Fascinating but uneven, the 14-track, hourlong effort reveals that Shawn Carter has been contemplating more than quarterly reports as president of Def Jam. He's been thinking about himself and his skills, of course -- he is a rapper -- but also about love, fame, and maturation. And in places this fully grown persona pays off in the sonic chances he's willing to take, even when they don't fully succeed.
Jay-Z is intriguingly low-key throughout much of the album. Tempos vary only occasionally from a medium-cool range, regardless of which producer -- Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, et al -- is behind the board.
But the jarring female screams, clattering drums, and string samples of "Oh My God" underscore rhymes that remind all comers of Jay-Z's lengthy reign. As he succinctly puts it, "When you're 10 years in, holla back then."
Elsewhere, Jay's broodiness about his place in the world translates into a faint desperation that doesn't suit his persona or the actual quality of the work on display.
For instance, "30 Something" is chock-full of nimble lyrical riffs on the benefits and wisdom that accrue with age, but the cumulative effect is of a man protesting too much about how "30's the new 20." Few entertainers have less need to prove that 36 isn't old than the man who has never (yet) been knocked from his perch.
"Hollywood," "Lost One," and "Minority Report" are among the strong tracks here -- by turns hooky, jazzy, and ruminative -- but others fall short of their mark. " Anything," featuring Usher and Pharrell, neither requires nor particularly highlights the gifts of either guest. And album closer "Beach Chair" is an odd grafting of Coldplay's grand atmospheres (Chris Martin sings and co-wrote the track) onto a woozy Jay-Z rap. It ends the album with a spacey question mark.
"I'm hip-hop's savior, so after this flow you might owe me a favor," Jay-Z raps on the title track. While we're grateful to have him back, he shouldn't count on cashing in any IOUs this time around.