I suppose it was inevitable in the finance-minded world of hip-hop that "CEO-ing" would join such money-making gerunds as "pimping" and "hustling" in the rap lexicon. It also seems preordained that it came from Jay-Z, who, these days, seems more comfortable helming corporations in boardrooms than he does actually treading the boards.
Returning from his half-assed retirement only three years after his last legitimate solo album, the artist born Shawn Carter hopes to save hip-hop from its present-day malaise. He even takes the album's title, Kingdom Come, from a comic book in which Superman returns to save the world from a new generation of reckless, irresponsible superheroes. He is right about one thing: Hip-hop needs some help. It's been a down year in every way. There've been no multiplatinum releases and very few standouts. Even artists such as the Game will be lucky to do half the numbers they did in 2005.
Kingdom Come debuted at #1 but has been in free-fall ever since. It will eventually creep into platinum status, but it is hardly the genre resuscitator that Jay-Z claims it is. The title track is, by far, the best on record. Over a backward sample of Rick James' "Super Freak," Jay-Z triumphs his own return and drops more names from the capes-and-tights set than the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. The song has energy to spare, though, and is catchy as hell. It's a shame that the rest of the record is so boring and uninspired. On "Hollywood," his duet with girlfriend Beyoncé, he raps of his incredibly dull jet-set life. And look, there's Coldplay's Chris Martin, collaborating on the snoozer closing track, "Beach Chair." It's understandable in this US Weekly world that Jay-Z would think that the public cares about every nuance of his privileged life, but even the starlets have to make a sex tape or have messy divorces to get a whole lot of ink. There is so much self-absorption that his Hurricane Katrina song, "Minority Report," seems perfunctory and hollow. The only things more predictable than his "socially conscious" lyrics are the thunderstorm sound effects.
Jay-Z's mature approach is appealing and irritating, sometimes in the same song. On "30 Something," he plays a grumpy Mr. Wilson to a generation of Dennis the Menaces, chiding the young'uns for their sagging pants and their blunts. Of course, it is nice to see him bragging about his credit score ("Now I got black cards").
Another nice side effect of Jay's aging is the fact that he's letting beefs slide. Nas used to be the Hova's primary target. Entertainment Weekly once ran a two-page spread chronicling the pair's bilious barbs. But now, Jay-Z's company, Def Jam, is releasing Hip Hop Is Dead, the latest album from his former nemesis.
The entertaining title track features Nas' quick history and analysis of hip-hop over a stirring sample of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and, for old school's sake, the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache." As good as that is, the best song is the Jay-Z collaboration "Black Republicans," which is every bit as impressive as their combined cred and skills suggested it'd be. Over a stately sample from the The Godfather II soundtrack, Jay-Z and Nas spit lyrics about the flipside of monetary success, "Then you mix things/Like cars, jewelry, and miss things/Jealousy, ego, and pride, and this brings/It all to a head like coin, cha-ching/The rule of evil strikes again, this could sting."
Other highlights include "Play on Playa," his laid-back duet with Snoop Dogg, and, surprisingly, the somber "Blunt Ashes," produced by Sixers forward Chris Webber. Hey David Stern, the mere fact that Nas kicks this joint off by asking, "Yo, I wonder if Langston Hughes and Alex Haley got blazed before they told stories" should earn Webber a five-game suspension, right? There are also several missteps, most noticeably the maudlin "Let There Be Light" and the milquetoast "Not Going Back." The biggest embarrassment is "Who Killed It?," where Nas misguidedly imitates Edward G. Robinson. It's the funniest '30s gangster accent since Johnny Dangerously. "Carry On Tradition" and "Where Are They Now?" are both humorless history lessons that directly or indirectly scold the youngsters for a lack of hip-hop knowledge.
Maybe Jay-Z and Nas bonded while bitching about all the meddlin' kids in the game. Hip-hop isn't dead and it doesn't need Supes to save it. Hip-hop is just walking wounded, but it will need better albums than this pair to be healed.
-- David Dunlap Jr.
Grades: Jay-Z: B-; Nas: B