Jay-Z got it right the first time.
When he "retired" in 2003, he strutted off the stage in near-perfection, with the stunning, powerful legacy-builder The Black Album and his equally on-point farewell concert at New York's Madison Square Garden memorialized in the movie Fade to Black.
How could you top all that? Why would you even want to try?
In his years of "retirement," Jay became President Carter, head of Def Jam Records. He made some high-profile appearances on singles from Beyonce, Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, as well as that hot "Dear Summer" freestyle he did on New York radio station Hot 97 last year. But it was this summer's spectacular concert marking the 10th anniversary of the release of the Reasonable Doubt album that suggested Jay may be able to pull off the near-impossible, that he could somehow top his pre-retirement self with his comeback album Kingdom Come.
Well, he doesn't. But he comes close.
Let's not twist it - it's great to have him back. Jay-Z's return livens up a season in which hip-hop has grown stagnant on retreads and wannabes, and Kingdom Come serves notice to the raft of would-be pretenders to his throne that they've been too lazy and too unwilling to stray from previously winning formulas. (Jay warns them in the single "Show Me What You Got" by proclaiming, "The King is back! Y'all got less than two months to get y'all thing together. Good luck.")
Kingdom Come opens by tossing down the gauntlet with three of the year's best-sounding hip-hop songs one after another - the startling gospel wails and grand runs of "Oh My God"; the title track, built on a slowed-down sample of Rick James' "Super Freak"; and the playful "Show Me What You Got" - all from producer Just Blaze.
Like much of the album, his lyrical concerns on those songs focus on his return and how he is bigger-better-stronger-faster than the "young 'uns" who have taken his place. In a way, all that protest is a sign of President Carter thinking too small.
He moved so far beyond that theme years ago that who's-better-than-who is like child's play to him now. For him to rap about it now is like whipping out the AK-47 when a guy comes at you with a toothpick.
And if there were any questions left about his relevance, "30 Something" puts them all to rest, when he declares "30s the new 20, I'm so hot still" and "I'm a bully with the bucks." He churns out one slam after another: "I'm young enough to know the right car to buy, but grown enough to know not to put rims on it."
Then he delivers the final blow: "Y'all respect the one who got shot, I respect the shooter."
It's not until songs like "Hollywood," featuring girlfriend Beyonce, and "Minority Report," a searing indictment of the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, that Jay-Z shows how far ahead of the rap pack he really is. "Hollywood" features a lighthearted, danceable beat with delicate synths and sweeping strings, not to mention Beyonce's sultry-sweet vocals, to balance the darkness of his rhymes about the necessary love-hate relationship with fame. Jay ticks off fame's casualties, including John Belushi, Janis Joplin and River Phoenix, as he asks, "You sure you want it?"
"Minority Report," featuring Ne-Yo, as well as a host of news clips about the Katrina disaster, is a stark change of pace, with Jay's delivery taking an emotional turn that he rarely reveals in his music. "Wouldn't you loot if you didn't have the loot?" he asks in a disbelieving voice. "Baby needed food and was stuck on the roof. ... Can't say we're better off than we was before. In synopsis, this is my minority report."
"Beach Chair," with its drums and strange, vaguely Eastern-sounding keyboards, is another major departure. Jay pushes the hip-hop envelope musically, as well as thematically, considering future generations and his legacy.
The album has its missteps - "Do U Wanna Ride," featuring John Legend and produced by Kanye West is bland and outright boring, while "NYthing," featuring Usher, Pharrell and producers the Goodfellas, is a bloated disappointment. But overall, Kingdom Come takes more risks and breaks more ground than any hip-hop record since OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and it does it while still providing everything Jay-Z fans have come to expect from his previous albums.
And that is reason enough to celebrate his return.
Glenn Gamboa writes for Newsday.