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Jay-Z's Return with 'Kingdom Come' Spotty

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Jay-Z's Return with 'Kingdom Come' Spotty

Jay-Z's Return with 'Kingdom Come' Spotty

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The rapper Jay-Z won't be holding in his music anymore. Two years after a showy retirement at Madison Square Garden, he's put out a new album. Since that retirement, he's worked as the president of a record label and few people expected Jay-Z to stay away from the microphone forever. That has not prevented his new album, "Kingdom Come," from being one of the most anticipated pop albums of the year.

Oliver Wang has the review.

(Soundbite of song "Show Me What You Got")

Mr. JAY-Z (Musician): (Singing) This is a state of emergency. What you want me to do, I'm sorry. I'm back.

OLIVER WANG: "Kingdom Come" isn't a return to the Jay-Z of yore. He's older, presumably wiser, and as he's quick to remind us, richer than ever. Though Jay-Z still reminisces over his days dealing crack on street corners, he's now cutting deals in the corner office. Out goes the boast of diamond-studded watches and top shelf liquor, in comes bragging about his stock portfolio, even his credit rating. What was once a brassy hustler's spirit has evolved into a rather obnoxious CEO swagger.

(Soundbite of song from album "Kingdom Come")

Mr. JAY-Z: (Singing) I'm young enough to know the right car to buy yet grown enough not to put rims on it. I got that six-deuce in curtains so you can't see me and I didn't even have to put sense(ph) on it. I don't got the bright watch, I got the right watch. I don't buy out the bar. I bought the nightspot. I got the right stock. I got stockbrokers that's moving it like...

WANG: This new corporate cockiness clashes with the other songs where Jay-Z lays his more mortal feelings bare. There's a requisite I-love-you-mom song and another well meaning but leaden track about Hurricane Katrina. Jay-Z really gets personal over his girlfriend, R&B star, now movie star, Beyonce. The pair duet, forgettably, on the song Hollywood. But on another, Jay-Z admits that her burgeoning career leaves him anxious over their future together.

(Soundbite of song from album "Kingdom Come")

Mr. JAY-Z: (Singing) I don't think it's meant to be for she loves the work more than she does me. And honestly at 23, I would probably love my work more than I did she...

WANG: Jay-Z has a penchant for expressing insecurity and self-doubt. Ten years ago he ended his first album with a song called Regrets. "On Kingdom Come," his final track also aims for introspection, only this time he's aided by an unlikely partner, Chris Martin, the mopey leader of the British band Coldplay who produces and cameos on the song.

(Soundbite of song "Beach Chair")

Mr. JAY-Z: (Singing) Life is but a dream to me, gunshots sing to these, other guys, but lullabies don't mean a thing to me. I'm not afraid of dying, I'm afraid of not trying, every day hit every way like I'm Hawaiian. I don't surf the net, no I never...

WANG: This eclectic but clunky coda caps an album who's musical momentum sputters, slips, and lags. Even superstar producers like The Neptunes and Dr. Dre submit unexpectedly anemic beats here. The one standout is Jay-Z's favorite partner, the producer known as Jus Blaze. He provides the rapper with three consecutive songs to start off "Kingdom Come" with an energetic intensity. On the title track, Blaze tweaks Rick James's "Superfreak" in a way never heard before, banishing the memory of MC Hammer's "You Can't Touch This," which used the same sample. It's such a vigorous makeover that it inspires Jay-Z to loosen up his designer suit and tie and uncork some of the fiery finesse of his younger days.

(Soundbite of song "Kingdom Come")

Mr. JAY-Z: (Singing) I'm ready. Right. Now everywhere I go they like Hovi back, up out the corner office of the cul-de-sac. Where's Iceberg Slim? He was the coldest cat. Get you swag back, daddy, where your focus at? Got to admit a little bit I was sick of rap, but despite that the boy is back. And I'm so evolved, I'm so involved, I'm showing growth, I'm showing charge. I'm CEO and yeah, going...

WANG: Despite moments like this, "Kingdom Come" is still awash in enough mediocrity to dampen Jay-Z's comeback campaign. He's still a star for the time being, but as the veteran rapper as he well knows, there are graveyards filled by cultural giants doomed by their hubris.

When he left hip-hop two years ago, it was on his terms, at the peak of a long career. Jay-Z's next exit may not prove so triumphant.

(Soundbite of song from album "Kingdom Come")

Mr. JAY-Z: (Singing) Guess who's back. Since this is a new era, got a fresh new hat. Ten-year veteran, I've been fed up and through with this (beep) but I never can. I used to think rapping at 38 was ill, well last year alone I grossed 38 mil. I know I ain't quite 38 but still, the flow so special got a 38 (unintelligible). The real is back...

INSKEEP: Coming two years after his retirement, Jay-Z's new album is titled "Kingdom Come." And our review comes from Oliver Wang, a music critic and scholar based in Los Angeles.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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