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Rapper's comeback effort has its ups and downs

Arguably one of this fall’s most anticipated album releases, no matter what genre, is Jay-Z‘s comeback album, Kingdom Come (Roc-A-Fella), and with it he is looking to reclaim his throne as rap’s kingpin.

That leads to the question: Was it worth it for him to go back on his word and come out of retirement?

In recent years, Jay-Z has served as president of Def Jam Records, but he also has kept semi-active as a performer, collaborating with Kayne West, Beyonce, Linkin Park and Phish, just to name a few. But with Kingdom Come, his first album of all-new material since 2003’s The Black Album, Jay seems to be tying up some loose ends and providing a spark to what has come to be, aside from a few unique talents, a weak hip-hop landscape.

The theory that rap isn’t in focus with him springs up numerous times on Kingdom Come. The album’s title track shows Jay-Z taking the identity of a superhero to help establish his status as “hip-hop’s savior,” and this is a very effective device. Using such good guy icons as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, Jay shares a bit of newfound positivity that is refreshing to hear.

“Lost One” is another newish concept in rap music. In it, Jay creates a song that honestly tackles his splits both acknowledged (with former business partner Damon Dash) and rumored (with girlfriend Beyonce). What makes this track memorable is how there aren’t attacks but admissions of equal fault. Most rappers would go right after the target, but the concept of the album is growth — and what better way to express this than to put the dispute on the table for the public to interpret.

There are a few stumbling points that come from the comeback angle. On almost every track, Jay reminds everyone that he’s back, and although this is expected, it gets redundant fast. The other common theme is the slightly less obvious one of spirituality, which in hip-hop always comes across conflicted, especially with such harsh language. The song that highlights the contradiction best is “Dig a Hole,” in which he goes after his peers with both lyrical threats and empty prophecy.

One thing that shouldn’t be ignored is the production of Kingdom Come, and that has its ups and downs, too. The highlight musically is “Oh My God,” which is propelled by hard rolling drum beats and a strong sample of The Allman Brothers Band‘s “Whipping Post” as covered by soul singer Genya Ravan.

On the flip side, “Anything,” which features singing help from Usher and Pharrell Williams, tries to recycle the tropical party of his previous hit “Big Pimpin’,” but ultimately the song fails because it’s hollow and vain. Jay is better on tracks like this when he’s the featured guest, not the center of attention. Plus, this also proves that Williams’ magic touch has run out: The great hip-hop run that he had by himself and as part of the Neptunes has become repetitive and dull.

So, was it worth it for Jay-Z come out of retirement? It could be in the long run — if he can use what works on Kingdom Come to continue to evolve. Despite the missteps on some tracks, this is still one of the year’s best rap albums and has the potential to change the public’s opinion of aging rappers.

— By Mike Madden