Jay-Z famously rapped on Kanye West's College Dropout that he's "not a businessman" but a "business, man." Cocksure, of course, but kind of an insightful self-examination. The Jay-Z brand includes a triumphant recording career, a clothing line, a record label, Roc-A-Fella, and Def Jam Records, of which he is CEO. Like Diddy, Jay-Z's an unusually canny self-marketer - some say to the detriment of the other Def Jam artists he fails to properly publicize.

With Kingdom Come, Z's comeback album after a three-year retirement, the New York mogul is putting his empire on the line. No one in his right mind considered 2003's stunning The Black Album the end of his career; we all knew Kingdom Come would come, and we all waited with bated breath. In that sense, it's the most important album of his career, and on paper, it's also the best. Producers include Just Blaze, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Swizz Beatz and the Neptunes; the guest roster lists John Legend, Usher, Pharrell and Hova's girlfriend, Beyonc‚ Knowles.

And yet, the Kingdom crumbles. It ranks alongside 2002's Blueprint2: The Gift and the Curse as his worst album. And while that record's excessive filler diluted the rapper's meaty moments, Kingdom lays consistently flat across 14 tracks. Blame it on rust if you will; then again, we're only talking three years here. Whatever it is, for the first time on any of his records, Jay-Z doesn't sound hungry. If The Black Album was his victory lap, Kingdom Come is the ensuing cramp.

The Black Album's glaring flaw, if anything, was the rapper's enormous ego overshadowing the lyrics that justified that narcissism. But he got away with all that "I'm the greatest!" rigamarole by backing it up with the genius of, well, "99 Problems." And "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." And "What More Can I Say."

His luck doesn't fare so well on Kingdom. He wades through the usual, flamboyant stream-of-selfness, this time emerging with nothing greater than himself. The best chorus he can muster on "Hollywood" is "It's the lights, the action, Hollywood!" On "30 Something," where we learn that "30 is the new 20" - hey, whatever helps you get to sleep at night - he muses that now he's "got good credit, and such." And such? Isn't this a hip hop album?

The album's best track is the Dre-produced "Lost Ones," a stripped down, piano-looping riff on the way fame's changed him and his relationships. It employs the same self-conscious dimensionality that's made Kanye West such an appealing figure during Jay-Z's retirement. More importantly, it's one of the few tracks on which he keeps up with his producers.

Of course, Jay-Z isn't Kanye West, and we don't want him to be. He's a considerably better rapper than his prot‚g‚, and that ego's part of his personal ethos. Nevertheless, he could learn an important lesson from West's recent success: listeners want to hear piss and blood and effort, not the manifestion of a years-in-the-making marketing campaign. This album is contrived - in the press, on paper and in Jay-Z's rapping. Just as Karl Rove couldn't save the Republicans this year, three years of anticipated hype-mongering can't save Kingdom Come from eating itself.

President Hova, your constituency is calling bullshit.


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