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November 21, 2006

Jay-Z enters golden years

Jay-Z’s new album Kingdom Come was inevitable. I don’t know of a single person who truly took the rapper at his word when he announced his retirement. It was a little like when Michael Jordan retired for the first time: You knew he’d come back. Competitive people like Jay can’t sit idly and watch the world pass them by. The impetus that pushes someone to spend their every waking moment fixated on some object, whether it is playing, shooting hoops, or in Jay-Z’s case, rapping, rarely wanes. For Jay, his retirement never really ever took effect. He still continued to provide guest verses for a multitude of rappers, all the while producing songs for his girlfriend Beyoncé Knowles and managing to find the time to serve as the CEO of Def Jam Records. What a retirement indeed.

Kingdom Come is a strong return for the rapper. Though not as good as its predecessor The Black Album, this one is by no means a disappointment. Here, his imperative is to prove why is he still relevant in spite of age (he’s 38, and, in hip-hop years, he’s a senior citizen). “30’s the new 20 nigga/ I’m on fire still,” he asserts on the album’s first track “30 Something.” Jay-Z’s biggest worry, which he hides behind a mask of bravado, is that there is no precedent for somone like him. All the great rappers had done most of their best work before slowly fading into irrelevance, or worse yet, death. 2Pac is gone. Notorious B.I.G. too. What’s was Kool Moe up to when he was 38? And the less said about LL Cool J the better.

One of the good things about buying a rap album is that even if you don’t like the rapper, you can still enjoy the instrumental beats in the background. Here, the list of producers is like the Yankees roster: it’s full of all-stars. You’ve got Pharell, Kanye West, Just Blaze, Dr. Dre, Swizz Beats, and even Chris Martin of Coldplay fame. All contribute impressive music that works in tantamount with Jay-Z’s lyrics to produce poppy hip-hop designed to appeal to the masses without injuring his street credibility. The album’s first single, “Show Me What You Got,” has already become a YouTube staple in large part because of its music video, a homage to the James Bond eras of the past. The song is a hooky party anthem assembled out of a Public Enemy sample by producer Just Blaze. Another noteworthy track is “Minority Report,” a sobering song on the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. The mournful and melancholy beat, supplied by Dr. Dre, provides a perfect background to Jay-Z’s plaintive lyrics about the many lives lost in the carnage. Stepping out of his J.O.V.E. persona, he honestly chastises himself for doing too little to help out: “Sure I ponied up a mill/ but I didn’t give my time/ So in reality I didn’t give a dime, or a damn.”With this album Jay-Z has become a hip-hop anomaly. He is the oldest and most successful rapper currently on scene. He has become in many ways the face of hip-hop, rap’s most successful export. Unlike other superstars in the genre, he’s been able to commercilize his success without sacrificing his credibility. Maybe that’s why he’s so remarkable. Here is a man who dealt cocaine and marijuana, slept on other people’s couches, was rejected by girls who thought he was “too ugly and wouldn’t touch [him].” Now, he is one of the spokesmen for Hewlett Packard Computers. A record mogul. He is the American Dream personified. An individual who through sheer hard work and perseverance became rich and successful. Retirement was undoubtedly a bad idea for someone like him. After all, he can’t rest. He’s got many more stories to tell and rhymes to create.