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JAY-Z, Kingdom Come, Roc-A-Fella
The self-proclaimed "Mike Jordan of recording" is back for another go-round, just like No. 23. And just as Jordan risked tarnishing a legacy punctuated by his final picturesque shot to win the Bulls' sixth championship in 1998 -- the perfect ending -- the same is true of Jay-Z, who walked away after one final classic, The Black Album, in 2003. Even though we want him to be that guy again, and maybe even need him to be that guy who knocks the young upstarts down a notch, he just isn't. It used to be that Jay-Z didn't have to promote his albums. His loyal following would check for it no matter what, knowing that more often than not, the product would be high quality. But the run-up to Kingdom Come has been borderline gimmicky. ESPN's Budweiser Hot Seat, Bud Select commercials, Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR radio shows, HP ads, 7-city tours in one day sponsored by Cingular. (Sponsors, you're welcome.) You have to tip your cap to his ability to market, but it's almost as if his insecurity about this album has forced him to pursue as wide an audience as possible, not content to rely on his already huge core. Maybe the fact this album has been shoved down our throats so much is the reason it doesn't taste as good as some of his other offerings. Now, The 411 Online has been more than supportive of Jay's career, doling out our share of classic ratings from Reasonable Doubt to The Black Album. Five in all. This won't be six. With all of the Dr. Dre tracks, you might be thinking "Oh My God" Rakim-style, but no, the track with that title features a valley girl on the chorus in a routine that falls far short -- in scale and success -- of risks like using "Annie." The usually strong lyrics are absent at times as well. Jay rhymes the same word on more than one occasion and repeats entire phrases a couple of times in what sounds like an effort to highlight them, but ultimately just spotlights their shortcomings. Just Blaze recycles some hip-hop standards with mixed results. The first single, "Show Me What You Got," borrows both the title and the all-too-familiar Lafayette Afro Rock Band horn sample from Public Enemy's 1988 "Show 'Em Whatcha Got," as Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker," Ice Cube's "Friday" and N2Deep's "Back to the Hotel" did before him. Likewise, Rick James' "Super Freak" is ceremoniously awakened from the dead with a "dusted off the Hammer -- damn, 'U Can't Touch This'" on the title track, but the beat is reworked to the extent that it's acceptable. Jay gets introspective on "Lost One," a holdover from The Black Album that didn't make the cut because the notoriously meticulous Dre missed the deadline. Not sure why, since it consists of a simple piano beat and a reggae hook. The subject matter, while dated by his reference to troubles with a 23-year-old B, is about as deep as he gets this time out, which is a shame, considering it's not even supposed to be here. Other high points include "Do U Wanna Ride," which makes nice use of John Legend over a bass-heavy beat, and "30 Something," which is trademark Jay and Dre as "the maturation of Jay-Z" is broken down. "Minority Report" is a well-intentioned critique of the response to Hurricane Katrina, but it loses its effectiveness with Jay's strangely high-pitched, whisper-like delivery. Something with a little more edge or fire is warranted when taking on the government. And tracks like "Hollywood," featuring his beloved Beyonce, in which he laments, "Now you've become what you once despised" and drops names of friends like "Chris and Gwyneth," show that Hov has lost his way a bit. "Chris" is Coldplay's Chris Martin, who appears on and produces "Beach Chair." "Gwyneth" is his wife, Paltrow, who thankfully is absent from the album. Apple apparently is too young to get name-dropped. "Beach Chair" is a curiosity. I wanted to hate this track, but the sound grows on you to the point it seems they pulled off this unlikely collabo. Others weren't as fortunate. "Anything" featuring Usher and Pharrell is sure to get plenty of rotation in the clubs, strip and otherwise. (I can see the bouncing nude bodies now.) But it isn't even the best track using "Anything" in the hook in Jay's library (see The Blueprint.) "Dig A Hole" is a mostly uninspiring attack on his enemies, although he gets in some good shots on Cam'ron: "He's selling low twos, only time you went plat my chain was on your neck that's an actual fact." Jay is bound to take some lumps on this one -- who knows, he might even draw criticism from Nick Anderson -- but the legacy is intact. Unlike MJ, who missed the playoffs again his second year with the Wizards -- I'd expect Jay-Z will come back stronger next time out to cement it. He's still better than most MCs out there. He just needs to refocus and prove it.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

Other Jay-Z reviews
JAY-Z, The Black Album
JAY-Z, The Blueprint 2
JAY-Z, Unplugged
JAY-Z, The Blueprint
JAY-Z, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
JAY-Z, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter
JAY-Z, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life
JAY-Z, In My Lifetime... Vol. 1
JAY-Z, Reasonable Doubt

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