Jay Z’s The Black Album release was one of the greatest album roll-outs in Roc-A-Fella history. And being that Jay Z, the king of rap himself, was stepping down from his diamond encrusted throne, it was an once-in-a-lifetime event for the ages.
At the time, Hov promised fans that this was his last hurrah. After giving fans countless hit records, club bangers, street classics, and introspective glimpses inside the mind of a true street hustler, Jay Z threw the kitchen sink into the making of The Black Album, accounting for every detail and wrinkle with the abandon of a man whose clock was running out. From Madonna interpolations to collaborating with Rick Rubin, the album was indicative of a man with one life left to live as a creative — a life that would expire upon its release.
The Black Album would be considered a worthy sendoff for a figure celebrated by many as the greatest rapper of all-time, but the aftermath, marked by his decision to sell his stake in Roc-A-Fella Records and part ways with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke was the real signal of the end of Hov as we knew it. In a move that was as swift as it was surprising, in December of 2004, Jay was subsequently tapped by L.A. Reid to become the President of Def Jam Records — the very record company he and his partners used to clash with during negotiations for Roc-A-Fella Records. Def Jam looked to Jay for his cache and expertise as a bankable artist to help steer the careers of up and coming talent, and to guide the ship that Simmons and Rubin built.
“After 10 years of successfully running Roc-a-Fella. Shawn has proven himself to be an astute businessman, in addition to the brilliant artistic talent that the world sees and hears,” said Reid in a statement at the time. “I can think of no one more relevant and credible in the hip hop community to build upon Def Jam’s fantastic legacy and move the company into its next groundbreaking era.”
“I have inherited two of the most important brands in hip-hop, Def Jam and Roc-a-Fella,” Jay-Z gushed. “I feel this is a giant step for me and the entire artistic community.”
And a giant step it was, as Jay Z was now overseeing the careers of artists who were previously his peers, including tenured stars like LL Cool J, DMX, and Ghostface Killah. All three legends would voice their displeasure of being “under” a man they had once viewed as a peer. DMX claimed that the two former collaborators were both “too big” to work with each other — while LL Cool J went as far as critiquing Jay’s moves as president publicly. However, the Marcy Projects native’s tenure at Def Jam was deemed as a relative success. He was credited for the discovery and signings of superstars like Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, and other megastars.
By mid 2005, Jay Z was entrenched in his role as head honcho, but despite the claim that he was over rap and content with his new life, Hov had already caught the music bug again. First making an appearance alongside Lenny Kravitz on the rocker’s 2004 single “Storm,” the following year would see him continuously hint at his subtle desire to step back in the booth with numerous features on records, including Memphis Bleek’s “Dear Summer,” Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy,” Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off (Remix),” and Bounty Killer’s “P.S.A. BK 2004.” 2006 would see him continue to lend his voice to new music. Bun B’s raucous posse cut “Get Throwed” featured Hov, and he had two high-profile appearances on wifey Beyonce’s own 2006 release B’Day — on the tracks “Upgrade U” and “Deja Vu,” increasing speculation that the Brooklyn Don was secretly gearing up for a return to the music scene.
The speculation would be put to rest by September of 2016, when Jay Z announced plans to release his ninth studio-album Kingdom Come in November of that year. Admitting that “It was the worst retirement, maybe, in history” and that he had forced himself to follow through with his decision for two years, Hov’s return may have been a foregone conclusion at that juncture, but was exciting news for rap fans who were clamoring for a new full-length dosage of Jay Z after going nearly three years without a fix. But at the same instance, that elation doubled as curiosity, with many wondering if the Def Jam presidency and his departure from the rap game over the previous three years would hinder his return to the elite form he displayed on The Black Album. Those concerns would be silenced with the release of Kingdom Come’s lead-single, “Show Me What You Got,” which arrived in late October of 2006, weeks prior to the album’s release date.
Produced by Just Blaze and powered by a samples of Public Enemy’s “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” and “Darkest Light” by Michael McEwan, of the Lafayette Afro Rock Band, “Show Me What You Got” was intended to be a celebratory and triumphant return for Jay Z, but would receive mixed reviews, Fickle critics were unimpressed by what they deemed a lackluster performance. It didn’t help that Lil Wayne, who infamously declared himself “the best rapper alive since the best rapper retired” decided to attempt to show up his idol with a vicious freestyle over the same beat, stoking the uncertainty even more.
Released on November 21, 2006, Kingdom Come was billed as a more “mature” album in comparison to his previous work, highlighting his growth in taste, wealth, and his lifestyle as a multi-millionaire CEO. Featuring an impressive list of production talent, including frequent collaborators Just Blaze, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, The Neptunes, and Dr. Dre, Kingdom Come was stacked to the brim with all of the bells and whistles to compensate for any rust on the part of Hov, but ultimately would not be enough to mask the album’s blemishes.
Debuting atop the Billboard 200 with first week sales figures of 680,000 in its first week, Kingdom Come was the most anticipated album release in all of music. Fans were clamoring to hear if the God MC could still walk on water or if he had become a mere mortal. The albums opening selection, “The Prelude,” features a sampled skit from the iconic blaxploitation film Superfly and finds Jay Z lamenting his itch to jump back into the thick of things and reclaim his throne. One of the superior intros in Hov’s catalog, “The Prelude” is a great first impression, but subsequent tunes like “Oh My God” and the album’s title-track pale in comparison and despite being more than serviceable for the average spit-kicker, border as pedestrian for a lyricist of his caliber.
Towards the middle of the album is where the real magic happens.”Lost Ones,” which sees Jay Z touching on his rift with former business partner Dame Dash, tumultuous relationships, and the guilt surrounding the death of his nephew, make for one of the more heartfelt and transparent tunes of his career.
Building on that moment with the chilling John Legend assisted number “Do U Wanna Ride,” an open letter to former street associate-turned-inmate Emory Jones, Jay Z shows glimpses of the greatness that set him apart, but all of the good faith built is lost with “30 Something,” which finds Jay attempting to normalize the lavish trappings of his lifestyle as a product of growing up, while refusing to admit that he’s past his prime. Another brief moment of brilliance on Kingdom Come occurs with “I Made It,” which is dedicated to the accomplishment of his mama proud, but Jay loses his footing again with the atrocities that are “Anything” — which features guest vocals by Usher and Pharelll, and the ill-advised clunker “Hollywood,” a collaboration with Beyonce that is undoubtedly their worst duet to date.
Beef and controversy are the topics at hand on “Trouble” and “Dig A Hole,” but Kingdom Come manages to make a soft landing with the album’s last two selections, “Minority Report” and “Beach Chair,” both of which see Hov venturing outside of his comfort zone with favorable results. “Minority Report,” which features Ne-Yo, and takes the Bush administration and the government to task for their lack of regard to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and is one of the more unsung compositions in Jay Z’s career and a stellar example of his underrated social commentary.
“Beach Chair,” which comes with a guest appearance from Coldplay’s Chris Martin, is an intense sonic affair that finds Jay Z reflecting on his past, present, and future, and is among the best work found on his first post-retirement album.
Over the years, Kingdom Come has been maligned by reputable critics and fans alike, and has been panned as a horrible album from one of rap’s greatest MCs, but with ten years worth of hindsight, that would be selling the album short, as it is truly full of quality offerings.
Sure, it may not feature the level of lyricism and near-perfection of a Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album, or Blueprint, but Kingdom Come is by no means a snooze-fest or a glorified Frisbee, as it contains a slew of records that many artists would pawn off their newborns for. For every “30 Something,” which is really not all that bad, you get a masterpiece like “Lost Ones” and for every imaginable slight you could make against “Hollywood,” which remains a tragic moment in the book of Hov, there’s a “Anything,” which despite its annoyance, has grown to become a guilty pleasure of sorts.
At the end of the day, when you boil it all down, yes, Kingdom Come is surely a shoo-in as Jay Z’s worst album, but when examined on its own merits and not on the grading scale of an icon, it’s an above average album that still bangs ten years later.