Jay-Z's Kingdom Come: It's Official
Entertainment Weekly, suddenly the gulliest magazine this side of Don Diva
Kingdom Come is a 1996 DC Comics graphic novel by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. It's one of these alternate-reality stories like The Dark Knight Returns or The Age of Apocalypse; comic-book writers love this stuff because it allows them to kill off major characters without actually fucking with their companies' revenue streams. In the story, the Joker has killed Lois Lane, and Superman has become a recluse after falling out of public favor for not being ruthless enough. He's ceded his superhero-leader status to a guy named Magog, who later leads a botched mission that ends up destroying the entire state of Kansas. After that, the number of super-people (the book calls them metahumans) grows exponentially, and they all wreak absolute havoc on society by fighting each other constantly and not giving a shit who gets in the way. So Wonder Woman coaxes Superman out of retirement, and he forms a grand council of superheroes who attempt to whip all the other metahumans into line, which eventually involves building a giant prison and fighting metahuman rebellions. Right now, Marvel Comics is ripping off the whole mess very entertainingly with its Civil War storyline.
Kingdom Come is also the name of the new Jay-Z album, which will come out on November 21. This album has been an object of massive speculation for months now, ever since a growing list of producers started accidentally on purpose letting it slip in interviews that they were working with Jay. Rap retirements never, ever last more than a few years, and everyone knew this album would be coming eventually, but a three-year retirement seems especially ridiculous when pop artists routinely take more time than that to release follow-up albums and when Jay never stopped doing shows or churning out guest appearances in the first place. Last week, I wrote a column wondering whether this is the wrong time for Jay to be releasing an album, whether he hasn't spoiled all his goodwill with his disappointing guest-appearances and his mixed-results run as president of Def Jam. But fuck it, I'm excited.
Jay named the album after the graphic novel, which is pretty much the geekiest shit he's ever done except for maybe proclaiming his love for John Mayer. In the Entertainment Weekly cover story where he finally came clean on coming out of retirement, he previews a couple of lines from the title track, and he's apparently comparing himself to Superman returning. If you really wanted to stretch things, you could probably keep the analogy going: the rap landscape turned into a chaotic, seething mass of lesser talents with no sense of personal responsibility squabbling with each other, the noble heroes of old replaced by the opportunistic and bloodthirsty kids of today. But unless Jay builds a prison for rappers in the middle of the desert somewhere, the parallels stop right there. And rap doesn't really work like that anyway. In comic books, a constant core of OG superheros casts a huge shadow over everyone else. In rap, the only constant figures are the guys who died. Legend status means basically nothing, and the careers of universally respected veterans stall out all the time. Nothing lasts forever. Jay-Z is the closest thing to a long-running star that rap has, but even he isn't a guaranteed success. He's never sold more than five million copies of any of his albums, which is an enormous number but which doesn't quite put him in the company of Biggie or Eminem. Other than Kanye West and maybe Young Jeezy, he's never really helped turn another rapper into a star, and it's not been for lack of trying. If I remember right, The Black Album sold about the same as the first Chingy album. A new Jay-Z album is definitely a big, big deal, but it isn't going to singlehandedly pull the record industry out of its slump.
All we're guaranteed is a great album. Jay-Z remains my favorite working musician; I even liked The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse. He's capable of saying more with a pause between words than most rappers are with entire songs, and the balance he strikes between openhearted pop ambition and sharp, layered introspection is pretty much without precedent. From the picture of the still-developing album in the Entertainment Weekly article, he'll be continuing his recent trend away from bloodlust and toward smoky, weathered contemplation, sort of the rap equivalent of Frank Sinatra's heavily orchestrated 60s material. One song was inspired by a Basquiat painting; another deals with the aftermath of his cousin's car-crash death. Still another track is a collaboration with Dr. Dre and Coldplay's Chris Martin, and I for one absolutely cannot fucking wait to hear how that one sounds. Some of this stuff is a bit problematic; I don't much like the idea of there being a Scott Storch track on there, nor do I think Swizz Beats is necessarily the guy to produce the long-awaited Jay/Nas collabo. But it only makes sense to give Jay the benefit of the doubt here. He knows what he's doing.
If the we're to believe the EW article, Jay is still working on the album even though it'll be out in a couple of months, and that sounds about right. He famously cranks out verses on the spot, and he has access to the best producers working, so he can safely save everything until the last minute. Generally, major artists start circulating new singles long before an album's release, but Jay doesn't really need to do that. A huge part of this album's appeal rests on its mystery, and his cryptic hints have done better at building than anticipation than an actual new single might do. If he pulls a Kid A and never releases a proper single, it'll keep that air of mystery going even after the album is out. And I would dearly love to see him avoid another disaster on the level of "Change Clothes." But then, I'm not exactly in a position to be giving this guy advice.
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z