Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: B-Money, Just Blaze, Dr. Dre, Mark Batson, Kanye West, DJ Khalil, The Neptunes, Syience, Ne-Yo, Swizz Beatz, Chris Martin, Quincy Jones
Features: Chrisette Michele, John Legend, Usher, Pharrell Williams, Beyoncé, Sterling Simms, Ne-Yo, Chris Martin
Whenever you find yourself in an argument about Jay-Z's greatness or why he's not that great (or, increasingly, who's better, him or Kanye?), it’s only a matter of time until someone brings up Kingdom Come—the one unredeemable record in Jay’s catalog. Unfinished Business might be worse, but it was mostly ignored. And coming as it did after Jay's three-year "retirement," Kingdom Comewas saddled with a load of “Jay-Z is back!” hype—lofty expectations that made its failure seem that much more spectacular.
For years, we could never understand why Jay would make such a bad album. It wasn’t until we sat down with Jay’s longtime engineer Young Guru did it all make sense. According to Guru, L.A. Reid gave Jay an impossible choice: Either rush out the album or the then-strapped-for-cash Def Jam would have to start laying people off. So Jay recorded the album in the midst of a world tour. He’d record right after performing, which might explain why his voice sounded so strained and his flow so tired. And, basically, the songs are weak.
Nevertheless, the album did have a few highlights. It kicks off with a great one-two-three punch: “The Prelude,” “Oh My God,” and the title track. But starting with the lackluster “Show Me What You Got” (which Lil Wayne would soon jack, and better, making Jay look old and out-of-touch) the album becomes a mix of forgettable (“I Made It”), frustrating (“Dig A Hole”), and flaccid (“Anything”).
Yet here’s the irony: On the low, the album kinda worked. In the short term (and this might not be a hundred percent attributable to Jay) Jay's celebration of “grown man swag” had trendchasers thinking suits and ties were cool after all. In the long term, Jay’s effort to get hip-hop to accept the fact of its aging has borne out. It might have been an awkward transition, but it was a transition nonetheless. If you look at rap now, some of it’s most exciting artists, from Juicy J to Gunplay to Danny Brown, are all in their 30s. Not to say Jay paved the way for them exclusively (folks like Dr. Dre, Ghostface Killah, Scarface, and Bun B deserve some recognition in this regard.) But he did help us get our “old man in the club” jokes out of our system before memes existed. Is 30 the new 20? Maybe not really. But hip-hop is undoubtably more comfortable with it's age spots since Jay’s kingdom came crashing down. —Insanul Ahmed