The Hova’s back from retirement, and Chris Martin’s the first to welcome him
Retirement is a pretty sedate affair: collect your gold watch, channel your pension into a selection of comfy slippers, and clear out your BlackBerry – but for those urgent appointments with the local allotment, of course. Not so for Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter. Ever since his shock announcement he was quitting the game in 2004 at the age of 33, the Brooklyn-born ex-hustler and self-styled “Hova” has been busy, assuming the role of CEO at the world’s most famous rap label Def Jam, launching the careers of ghetto superstars (Young Jeezy, Rihanna, Memphis Bleek), and popping up on joints from Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco. Oh, and let’s not forget he’s still slapping flesh with Beyoncé. King Of New York? If we can channel the spirit of Sir Westwood just for a moment: this ain’t some hype thing, baby – it’s straight fact!
And now, ‘Kingdom Come’. Pieced together with a crack team of producers including Kanye West, The Neptunes, Dr Dre and long-term Jay-Z collaborator and Roc-a-Fella beatmaker Just Blaze, it’s a dream-team line-up.
“What you gonna do except hustle?” shrugs Jay and, with a fanfare of horns, he’s riding a beat of gut-punching kickdrums and snake-charmer melodies and restating his claim as the Alpha Male of hip-hop in broad-ass strokes. The two following Just Blaze productions can’t be bettered: ‘Oh My God’ is a straight-up battle track, Jay-Z beating his chest from within a whirlwind of keening gospel hooks and building horns, while the title track – built on the slinky spine of funk lunatic Rick James’ ‘Super Freak’ – casts the Hova as New York’s superhero saviour, tearing off business suit à la Superman and lifting the rap world, Atlas-style, on his shoulders. Next, almost as an afterthought, on ‘Show Me What You Got’, he picks up a beat that just appeared on the new Diddy album and plain demolishes him on it. It’s quite an opening.
‘Kingdom Come’, it’s clear, showcases an older, wiser Jay-Z. ‘Hollywood’, featuring a commanding, multi-tracked Beyoncé, expresses a weariness with the showbiz merry-go-round, while ‘I Made It’ comes on less like a world-straddling boast than a graduation certificate posted home to mom. But it’s ‘30 Something’ where the lines really begin to show – a gleaming cut of Yuppie-rap that sees Jay pondering about “good credit and such” as if from the comfort of a foot spa (he also declares “30s is the new 20s, nigga” – grey power!). Still, even back in the days of 1996’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Jay boasted the ruthless business brain of a Scorsese villain and ‘Dig A Hole’ is sufficient proof he hasn’t exactly mellowed with age – a lyric of masterful command that’s not so much about killing his enemies as literally burying them, with earth, in a big hole. And ‘Trouble’ is a shrug of admission that, however successful, he’s still got “hands in the cookie jar”.
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But ‘Kingdom Come’ is not a record without flaws. Its sole Kanye production, ‘Do You Wanna Ride’, all goes a bit Moby thanks to the anaemic hook from soul crooner John Legend, while ‘Anything’ – a jumbled “strip-club” track featuring Pharrell and R&B freak Usher – suggests that where once The Neptunes could turn shit into gold, they might now struggle to hit Rik Waller with a pie to the mouth. The surprise highlight is actually ‘Lost One’, a philosophical track that blasts former record label Roc-A-Fella for claiming they ‘made’ him (“OK, then make another Hov”), smooches with Beyoncé, and pays tribute to his dead cousin. But ‘Kingdom Come’’s two most remarkable tracks are saved for the end. ‘Minority Report’ is the “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment – a nightmarish re-enactment of the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans that places blame “in the hands of the people that left my people stranded”. And finally, there’s the much-discussed, much-anticipated ‘Beach Chair’. Featuring the production talents of hot new Harlem beat-maker Cold Play, this… wait, what’s that? Er, OK, this is Coldplay’s first hip-hop track and somewhat unbelievably, it’s excellent. Set in some strange, dream-like limbo shaken by huge, echoing drums with guitar distorted like music box chimes, it finds Jay-Z pondering “Life is but a dream”, as Chris Martin’s voice swoops by on feathered wings. It’s here when you suddenly realise why the rap fraternity adore Coldplay. To you, they might be the public school Radio 2 plodders with a bunch of songs about as dangerous as a chocolate orange, but to hip-hop, they’re the perfect angelic foil to all those only-God-can-judge-me fantasies.
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‘Kingdom Come’ may not be perfect, but it’s proof that, when Jay-Z’s on form, he works in a field of one. You know those criticisms people chuck at rappers – that they’re boastful, arrogant, obsessed with the accumulation of personal wealth? Go reel them off. You’ll hear this record, and you’ll fall to your knees in supplication. Still The King Of New York, baby, and long may he reign.