November of 2003 was different. There was this monstrous takeover from 50 Cent through the entire year, and it was only gaining steam. 50 was the biggest new name on the scene, and his Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ debut was still riding high on the billboard charts while his G-Unit crew’s Beg For Mercy would be released November 14. Landing on the same day of release as G-Unit, and slightly overshadowing them, was The Black Album—Jay Z’s official bow-out from music. Leading to its release, there was a cloud of uncertainty that hovered over rap. Who would fill that spot? Up until this point, Jay Z released an album every year since 1996. But now he was done, and was leaving on the highest note possible. We know that promise didn’t hold up, and after three years of fighting the urge, Jay had resurfaced after what he called “the worse retirement in history,” to release Kingdom Come—his highly anticipated comeback. In the vein as of one of Superman’s story arches of the same name, Jay Z was supposed to be separating himself, and showing us that growing old in rap can be done. Instead, it only isolated him from the game and, I’d like to think, it served as a lesson learned.
This year marks 10 years since the release of Kingdom Come. On that day, I went straight to my college’s bookstore because there were ramblings of it being available there. By this time, I’d listened to the first single, “Show Me What You Got,” more than a handful of times, and I was interested in seeing how his perspective had changed after three years. I was overcharged, but I had the album. I listened that night knowing this Jay Z wasn’t much like the one I’d been used to. The charm and wit in his lyrics was still there, but clouded with imagery of polka-dotted scarves and the denouncement of Cristal Champagne, which we couldn’t afford, anyway. “The Prelude,” the album’s intro, crept in perfectly for this new part of his life. It’s reflective, and evoked an image of an older Hov, sitting by a fire with the finest whiskey as he reflects on his rich history. It was one of his best intros ever.
“I used to think rapping at 38 was ill, but last year alone I grossed 38 mill’, I know I ain’t quite 38 but still, the flow so (Special) got a (38) feel” — “The Prelude”
But the flaws in the album were felt immediately afterwards. While the offering touted production from some of the biggest names in music, most of their contributions come off as uninspired and dated and, consequently, left Jay Z’s new raps without the support they could’ve used. “Oh My God,” was the second song on his post retirement album, but he was back retelling the story that made him a rap icon—a story we’d already heard—instead of providing new intel. The highlights were far and few between, while the missteps appeared in excess. I remember listening to “Anything,” featuring Usher and Pharrell, and trying to like it. But something was off about it, while “Hollywood,” featuring Beyoncé, was like a Jay Z fan’s nightmare in remembrance of when he succumbed to the shiny suit era. The title track served its purpose with a masterful Rick James sample and production from Just Blaze. “Kingdom Come” got Hov back to his old ways, with the message being that he was hip hop’s savior. At this time, Lil’ Wayne was already attempting to fill the void Jay left three years prior, and was calling himself “the best rapper alive, since the best rapper retired.” In an interview with Complex in 2006, Weezy shared his distaste in Jay’s reemergence.
“I don’t like what he’s saying about how he had to come back because hip-hop’s dead and we need him,” Wayne said. “What the f— do you mean? If anything, it’s reborn, so he’s probably having a problem with that. You left on a good note, and all of the artists were saying, ‘Yo, this is Jay’s house. He’s the best.’ Now he comes back and still thinks it’s his house… It’s not your house anymore, and I’m better than you.”— Lil’ Wayne (Complex Magazine 2006)
Yeah, we’ve heard Wayne say his fair share of ridiculous things over the years, but this was the first slice of humble pie served to Jay that may have told him his welcome back party wasn’t going to be welcoming. Jim Jones was also having a noteworthy year at the time, and had his own beef with Jay Z—which consisted mostly of Jones calling Jay old and out of touch. To my surprise, he made “Brooklyn High,” which was aimed directly at Jim Jones over his own instrumental. Yes, 2006 was weird enough for Jay to respond to Jimmy. To me, it was telling of how much he wanted to return to the essence of rap, and a beef would establish his comeback.
Off the anticipation alone, Hov’s return album pushed almost 700k the first week in sales, but the second week had more than an 81% dip. The music was settling in, while the hype died down, revealing that this was some of Jay’s most uninspired work in years. Songs like “30 Something,” came off as if he was trying to convince us of his cool, which is something Jay has never had to do. “I Made It,” is a testament to his success and to his mom, but after 8 albums, and coming back from retirement, we know you’ve made it, Jay.
Kingdom Come was the misstep Jay needed to make. His new lifestyle seemed overbearing for me. He made note of his trial and error, and returned with American Gangster two years later, a much refined tune. He was back in touch with his sound, and making music he believed in once again. Whether he’s made inspiring music since then is still debatable for some. “First game back, don’t shoot me,” he said of KC while ranking his own solo albums, but all wasn’t lost; Jay Z realized he, too—despite consistently releasing good material for almost a decade—wasn’t above being pelted dishonorably back to the thinking board.