The Un-Retirement of Jay-Z

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Like running backs and child actors, rappers usually do their best work in the first year or two of their careers. The inevitable decline isn't brought on by bum knees or embarrassing arrests — in rap there's no such thing — but by something far more mundane: words. Jay-Z's aptly titled classic "What More Can I Say" is more than 800 words long, and when it's over you know everything you could possibly need to know about him. (By contrast, James Blunt's pop ballad "You're Beautiful" has less than 200 words, half of which are 'beautiful'.) Now multiply "What More Can I Say's" 800 words by 12 to make an album, then multiply again by the number of albums in a catalog and it's obvious why most rappers peak early: they literally run out of things to talk about.

Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) seemed to know he had cheated the odds when he announced his retirement in 2003. Then 34, he had lived the ur-rap narrative—make tapes, launch a label, buy a De Beers mine—and bragged about it on a dozen often brilliant albums. But no rapper is immune to the pull of the mic, and on Kingdom Come, his heavily hyped comeback, Jay-Z tries to subvert the problem of having said everything by saying everything a little differently. Where once his delivery had the ring-a-ding-ding smoothness of Sinatra—another vocalist who made callousness seem like charm—Jay recognizes that, at 37, with a girlfriend beloved by the public (Beyonce Knowles) and a company to run (Def Jam Records) that act is a lot harder to pull off. So on "Lost One" and the brilliant thinking-about-cheating song "Trouble" ("If my hand's in the cookie jar know one thing / I'm a take the cookie, not leave my ring") he introduces new vocal dynamics, pausing for effect or completely changing his meter mid-stream so that the words take on jarring emphases.

It's a bold maneuver, and when Jay-Z combines it with real attempts at acknowledging his place in rap and in life on "30 Something" ("I don't got one gun on me / Gotta a sum on me to hire a gun army / Getcha spun like laundry / And I'll be somewhere under palm trees / Calmly listenin' to R&B") Kingdom Come seems destined to become rap's first genuinely adult album. But those moments are just flashes between Jay telling rap's new kids to get off his lawn and reminding the rest of us of that he's still a thug at heart—that he hasn't changed a bit. The album's Who's Who of producers, including Dr. Dre and Kanye West, normally could be relied on to spice up the duller patches, but the riffs either sound recycled or, more disturbingly, like Herb Alpert-era smooth jazz. (Not a positive trend for this or any other genre.) Jay-Z may yet have more to say, but he doesn't say it here.