“When I come back like Jordan/Wearing the 4-5, it ain’t to play games with you” – Jay-Z “Encore”
June 14th, 1998. It’s game six of the the 1998 finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. With 5.2 seconds to go, Michael Jordan put the finishing touches on his legacy with a shot to seal his 6th NBA title and the Bulls second three-peat. Everybody dreams of that one shining moment to go out on top and hit that apex of accomplishment. 2003’s The Black Album, was supposed to be that final shot for Jay-Z. “My 1st Song”, which is ironically the last song on the album uses an excerpt from late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. where he says, “The key to staying on top of things..Is treat everything like it’s your first project, nomsayin'”? The album was an acclimation of everything that lead Jay-Z to the top of the rap game which started with 1996’s Reasonable Doubt.
Let’s fast forward to 2006. Every great athlete has an itch to come back to the thing they loved most. It’s what led Michael Jordan back from his first retirement in March of 1995 wearing the number 45 at first to honor his late father. After another retirement, he stated to ESPN that he was 99.9% sure that he was never going to play another game. Eh, there’s always that .1% that says, “what if?” Jordan’s second comeback with the Washington Wizards that started in 2001 did not show the high-flying, highlight reel that we were used to. Father time catches up to us all and even to ground his airness.
Jay-Z’s comeback was under a different set of circumstances. In an interview with Complex, Jay-Z’s engineer and one of the most trusted friends, Young Guru explained the climate around Def Jam in early 2006. “I’m like, ‘We’re not ready. I have some songs but it’s not done and he’s in Africa.’ They’re like ‘If this shit doesn’t come out, people are getting fired. I can’t pay my bills, this record has to come out at this time.’”
Def Jam was under intense pressure due to underwhelming album sales and a new-found problem – piracy. At the time, Jay-Z was also the president of Def Jam. Could Jay take the jersey out of the rafters? Could Clark Kent and Superman co-exist in the same realm? The title of the 2006 album draws an interesting parallel as well. There is a four-part DC mini-series of the same name that depicts a different universe where Superman has stopped being a super hero. There are new issues, particularly with new heroes and methods that end up killing innocent people and Superman has to dawn the cape to save the day again. Jay-Z has to come to save the day again as indicated in the album’s title track, but like Batman warns to Superman in the story, these are different times (even if only three years have passed).
Jay-Z ranked his 14 albums from top to bottom and ranked Kingdom Come dead last. When you listen to one of Jay-Z’s albums, there’s a methodical approach to it. Although the rapper is known for recording, not writing everything down, words are often positioned like moves in a chess game. The “infamous” “Grammy Family” freestyle that was done at Hot 97 around the release of the album showed that the fire for word play was still there.
“The Interlude”, the first track from KC indicates the struggle that Jay-Z had once he left the rap game to be an executive. “I say that reluctantly cause I do struggle/As you see I can’t leave so I do love you”. If you know anything from previous Jay-Z albums, they open with strong, introspective tracks that set the tone almost like a movie summary. There was one song in particular where you noticed a chink in the armor. The celebratory first single, “Show Me What You Got” complete with a saxophone sample from Wreckx-n-Effect‘s 1992 song, “Rump Shaker”. The song itself seemed like a standard radio single by Jay-Z’s standards, but it wasn’t until a few months later where Lil Wayne debuted his freestyle “Dough Is What I Got”. There were new challengers in the arena who were just as hungry this time around.
“And when it comes down to this recording/I must be Lebron James if he’s Jordan/No, I won rings with my performance/I’m more Kobe Bryant of an artist/Same coach, same game, been starting/Same Triangle Offense”.
There are points of the album which are passionate. In “Lost Ones”, Jay addresses multiple issues (separation of business with Dame Dash, death of his nephew, Colleek D. Luckie, and a relationship. “30 Something”, which featured production from Dr. Dre that made for a “grown and sexy” type feel, spoke of what would be 37-year-old Jay-Z arriving back older and wiser. “Minority Report” spoke of the ills of hurricane Katrina and his personal guilt by not donating his time, but instead his money. Both ‘Trouble” and “Dig A Hole” found Jay-Z asserting himself both in the newer climate of rap and addressing concurrent beefs a la Camron.
There are some collaborations on here that do not have the same appeal as they did in previous albums. For example, “Anything” may pale in comparison to the previous Neptunes-assisted track on The Black Album, “Allure”. Songs like “Deja Vu” and “Upgrade U” were released on Beyonce’s B’Day album two months earlier before Kingdom Come, so “Hollywood” did not look as well. “I Made It” was a bookend version of the more complete “December 4th” track from the prior album.
Within an album that was rushed by Jay-Z’s standards, there seemed to be a dichotomy of executive Jay-Z vs. his rap persona. They did not have enough time to give each other space and learn how to co-exist. We were not used to seeing an unsettled Jay-Z. The album ends on a high note with “Beach Chair” where Jay-Z is recalling all his success which is a blueprint to his unborn child and even up-and-coming artists. Jay would eventually regain his footing on the 2007 release, American Gangster, but Kingdom Come serves as a reminder than ever the greats can stumble at points.