Oh, progress, what have you wrought?
The farther we come, it seems, the more we disagree. The year is 2006 and the world is a broken one, split by intense factionalism, lack of understanding, and refusal to compromise: hip-hop has grown from its cultural foundations to a disorientingly fragmented collage of hardcore street rap and slick B.E.P. pop, Kanye orchestrations and minimalist snaps, wheezing crunk and funk and grime, slice-of-lifers, nostalgic old men jacking off to Primo purities and young women picking songs with their hips and new booties. “Hip-hop is dead!” Nas is screaming in the corner, an old dope (still a dope? still dope?), drowned out by ballin’.
The exact strength of this “hip-hop”‘s pulse is a matter of nomenclature. You bet your ass hip-hop is dead, Rakim-Raekwon-and-Big-Daddy-Kane drowned in money-in-the-bank and Fergie shouts the elegy while the “nigga”-dropping white teenagers in G-Unit dance the grave shut (grinding, yes?). And hip-hop is absolutely fucking alive and well, in an age where beats are as complex and beautiful as ever and the same good deep old hip-hop is as alive and well as ever, if not more so—it’s just more hidden beneath the layers of more commercial and watered-down candy-rap that didn’t exist in the prematurely-deemed Golden Age. Hip-hop, then, is in a difficult position—nobody’s sure if it’s poised strong to conquer the world or in desperate need of a savior, or both things at once.
Regardless, Jay-Z seems quite willing to play the part of savior.
Of course, even he can’t pull it off and save hip-hop. Jay-Z is hip-hop, yes, but the dirty little secret that he likes us to ignore is that hip-hop is not Jay-Z: whether Sean Corey Carter came back for the judgement or not, children would still be ridin’ dirty and wondering just what they know about that. As a matter of fact, Jay’s stature as impossibly-rich-CEO and certifiable hip-hop legend almost seem to cripple him in this regard—that Jay is an icon first, operating on a plane so far above his contemporaries (at least with regards to status), creates enough of a separation between hip-hop and him that even with a resounding success it would just be Jay-Z, not the pulse, not the mass of hip-hop. So the rainforests all have grown back? Big surprise, man, the walking god did it.
Kingdom Come is not just a comeback album. Jay-Z never really left, he just played retirement into the gravitas of pseudofinality that ran through The Black Album and then split up his many new verses for anyone needing a guest rap while he acted corporate suit. Kingdom Come is the fucking second coming, if you take him at his word, it’s the balm on the chapped lips of hip-hop. Where it succeeds, it’s worth every dollar, but the main problem is exactly as described: it’s all a problem of scale.
Nobody would accuse the crack-dealer-turned-Fortune-cover-man of having too much ambition—it’s just one of his assets. This ambition that has served him so well has been growing too, year after year. When the life and times of S. Carter were just too boring he jacked up the soul and showed us the blueprint for a complex, introspective rap tangle with instant classics of Kanye backing; when we all repressed our memories of the gift and the curse he made his biggest career move yet: ending the career of one of the biggest rappers out there. Unlike the end of a Tupac or a Biggie, though, Jay Hova had time to prepare, and The Black Album, if clearly not his best work yet from a lyrical standpoint, perfectly executed his recipe for success: undeniable, masterful production and solid Jay rhymes. It was the finale of the fireworks show, all stops pulled out, the only real way to encompass the sheer grandiose ambition that Jay-Z now had. If he spoke of himself in messianistic terms, well, he was Jay-Z, and who would deny him his boasts on this final outing?
In 2006, the ambitions have finally grown to the point where they no longer have any practical means. With no stops left to pull out, this comeback would have to be something intense, and the only real option for Jay to achieve the scale that he needed was to phrase the entire thing as apocalyptic in the size of is import. Jay-Z is the savior leading hip-hop to Kingdom Come, those sandals on the beach, they were Jesus Christ sandals, he was trying them on and he likes how they fit. This promise is too large for even the Def Jam president to deliver on. And in trying, Jay-Z has pulled off the world’s best example of “shooting oneself in the foot”: making a really really good record about how that particular record is the best ever.
When it’s on, it’s undeniably on point. Opener “The Prelude” is a perfect example of Kingdom Come gone right, Jay-Z showing off his new adult swagger over a classily swooning string beat, as effortless and casually dominant and nimble as ever. The next up, “Oh My God”, is pretty hot too, like a punchier and rougher and crazier evil twin of The Black Album‘s “What More Can I Say”. “Kingdom Come” is another great track. The beat is an old one you’ve probably already heard on the internet at some point, but it’s so sheerly brilliant that Just Blaze can be forgiven for this lack of freshness—the lovably inane “Super Freak” gets ripped into shreds and resewn, Frankenstyle, as an urgent-toned banger for Jay. The MC himself is in fine form here, not at the peak of his abilities but mixing the same rhythmic patterns, internal rhyme schemes, and sharp double entendres he’s worked off of in the past to satisfactory effect. If only most of the production was memorable at all.
The opening sequence of songs sets the bar pretty high, and the next big problem is that the album is essentially front- and back-loaded. The uncharacteristically gentle (for Dre) piano chords of “Lost Ones” are a highlight here, but from there up until the absurdly-sweet Chris Martin collaboration of the album-closing “Beach Chair”, there’s just a lot of pretty-nice-but-unremarkable backing that fades together. So many unexceptional moments on an album are usually acceptable if the highs are this strong, but this isn’t just an album, this is Kingdom Come, and even the songs themselves won’t let you forget it. If you divorce the music from its context, much of it is damn good. But you can’t, because hip-hop is half lyrics and Hov’s are all context. Kingdom Come is a solid record, and entirely worth the cost just to hear Jay-Z spit a new song, but in the end it just can’t live up the expectations it tattoos all over itself.
So the sunrise disappoints, after the sunset and its day. But what a sunset and what a day those two had been; this red sunrise still glows on its own.
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