So much ink has been spilled about Jay-Z’s “comeback” that you’d be forgiven if you spin Kingdom Come expecting a blinding light of salvation to explode from your speakers. Breathless music writers, hungry for something of substance to scribble about in these waning days of 2006, nearly lost their collective mind when Jigga announced that his retirement (casual hiatus might be more accurate) was over and he was returning with his eighth studio album, tipped to be crammed full of classic H.O.V.A. moments. It makes for greatly heightened expectations and equally crushing realizations.
Ambitious statements ahead of time help explain why Jay’s including a bonus disc with selections from his June 2006 concert run-through of Reasonable Doubt: after spinning Kingdom Come, you’ll need a refresher course as to what made the Brooklyn native so vital in the first place. While Jigga wrestles with aging and his dual status as rap superstar and boardroom big shot, there’s a fatal sense of ennui that drags down nearly every track: the Hurricane Katrina-centric “Minority Report” and limp Chris Martin-penned closer “Beach Chair” are thematic misfires, while “Do U Wanna Ride” should feel a lot more engaged than it does. When held up against The Black Album, having dropped barely three years ago, it sounds like the work of an entirely different artist, one who’s going through the motions (not that this is a new trait; Jay previously coasted on 2002’s The Blueprint 2).
The requisite top-shelf cameos (Usher, Pharrell, Ne-Yo, John Legend, Martin) do absolutely nothing to invigorate Jay-Z, whose rhymes feel tossed off and devoid of either urgency or charisma. This is, after all, a bottom line-obsessed CEO who’s debuting new songs in Budweiser commercials—it’s kind of hard to cling to street cred when you’ve got shareholders on your mind. For as enthusiastically as he touted his retirement, Jay-Z is just as emphatically explaining to any journalist with a tape recorder that he’ll “never say never again,” refusing to step away from a genre he helped catapult to new heights of relevance less than a decade ago. The question you have to ask yourself is: If all of Jigga’s future records sound as labored and flat as Kingdom Come, do we really need him back?