FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Mark Anthony Neal takes a look at the short retirement of one of hip-hop's big names.
Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (African-American Studies, Duke University): Shawn Carter - aka Jay Z - was at the pinnacle of his career when he decided to retire from the rap game. With a string of platinum-selling recordings, including the classic, “Reasonable Doubt” and his so-called retirement opus, “The Black Album,” a net worth well beyond 200 million and the so-called hottest chick in the game on his arm, it made perfect sense that Jay-Z might be just a little bored with rapping.
When Carter decided to graduate to the boardroom, taking on the presidency of The Island/Def Jam recording group and part ownership of the NBA's New Jersey Nets and The 40/40 sports club in New York City, many held their breath waiting for him to grow weary of the day-to-day grind of running a company. And while Jay-Z has yet to give up the title of President Carter, it took only three years for him to get the urge to go back into the lab to record a new studio recording.
“Kingdom Come” is aptly named for the self-styled Superman of rap as Jay-Z returns to save hip-hop. But if you read the mixed reviews for the new disc, there's a general consensus that the game might have passed Carter by. And there's some truth to this.
In the three year since his retirement, crunk has become the addiction of choice as a revolving door of Southern rappers, all seemingly produced by Lil Jon, have taken to the stage selling out the box. Even Young Jeezy, one of Carter's charges at Island Def Jam, is more relevant to the generation of teen, tween, 20s that drive the recording industry at the moment.
And therein lies the inspiration behind Jay-Z's retirement in the first place. As a 30-something rapper, Carter simply wasn't willing to compete with the youngins(ph) for audiences that were half his age. Audiences for which references to Big Daddy Kane or Pappy Mason were little more than empty signifiers from a rapper who had been in the game too long.
But as President Carter, Jay-Z was given a different view of the game. As hip-hop began to lose part of the audience that made it a top-selling musical genre, Carter realized that there were segments of hip-hop's audience that were being taken for granted by the mainstream. As a nearly 38-year-old rapper and more importantly rap fan, Carter was a metaphor for the generation of folk who had grown up on hip-hop for more than 20 years and still considered themselves informed consumers.
For example, if hip-hop was a person, it would be in its mid-30s, married, maybe even divorced, adopting kids, securing mortgages and even putting together 401K portfolios. When songs from “Kingdom Come” were first leaked on the Internet, many of my 18- to 19-year-old students complained that they didn't like them. My initial quip to them was they assumed that Jay-Z had made the recording with them in mind.
As a 40-something husband, father and professor, I can honestly say “Kingdom Come” may be the first rap recording made with me in mind. With 650,000 copies of “Kingdom Come” sold in the first week, I suspected I'm not the only one who feels this way.
(Soundbite of song from album “Kingdom Come”)
JAY-Z (Rapper): (Singing) This is state of emergency.
CHIDEYA: Mark Anthony Neal is associate professor with the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He's also the author of “The New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.”