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Larger than life

Two kinds of triumph from Jay-Z and the Game
By MATTHEW GASTEIER  |  December 6, 2006
EGO: Forget the result: what counts is that Jay has the clout to collaborate with an artist of Chris Martin’s stature.

Although predictions that Jay-Z, in his comeback, would pull in the biggest sales numbers of the year were proved wrong (at 680,000, his Def Jam release Kingdom Come ranks third behind Rascal Flatts and Justin Timberlake in 2006), that’s hardly the story worth telling. After all, the predictions were unreasonable given that in this post–Tower Records world most people get their music from Wal-Mart and Best Buy, where country comforts like Rascal Flatts reign supreme. The story is that Jay’s dominant showing — he did, after all, take the #1 spot last week — marks his ninth debut at the top. Which puts him behind only Elvis Presley and the Beatles in that department. Elvis Presley. The Beatles. Jay-Z.

So, did hip-hop grow up with the release of Kingdom Come? Along with his new-found spot in the record books, Jay’s album would appear to be the first hip-hop disc to reach out to a grown-up mainstream audience without changing the genre’s fundamental sound à la OutKast. A week after the Game released one of the best hip-hop discs of the year to solid numbers from a core hip-hop crowd, Jay-Z, the man many call the king of New York, decided to show the West Coast youngster how to play to the red states (religious references and all). Although the response to Kingdom Come from hardcore fans has been mixed, the mainstream’s embrace is very real.

And that’s no surprise either: Jay has traveled into uncharted territory for an MC even at a time when hip-hop crossovers to the mainstream are at an all-time high. GQ and Life magazine covers? Check. Hangin’ with Gwyneth? Double check. And how many rappers brag about their UN initiatives? Probably about the same number of CEOs that rap about their cumulative performance on the job (“Kingdom Come: Def Jam’s Fourth Quarter Report”). But the changes in Jay’s life and the triumphs on the charts belie the reality of the wax: this is pretty routine stuff for the Brooklyn MC.

That’s not to say Jay hasn’t tried to make a difference in this crazy rap game. There’s the genuinely strange Kanye beat on “Do U Wanna Ride” that sounds like ambient elevator music trapped underwater in a drum, a failed experiment in next-level explorations. And then there’s the most-talked-about excursion, Jay’s collab with Coldplay singer Chris Martin on “Beach Chair.” Coming across as Radiohead-lite, Jay, whose idea of cutting-edge rock is John Mayer, must no doubt be thrilled with the result. But Radiohead have already brought IDM strains into the pop playing field. In that light, Jay’s copy of a copy loses some of its shine. And in the context of Timbaland and Prefuse 73, who’ve been injecting pure avant strains into the hip-hop bloodstream for years, Jay’s stepped-on foray into genre hopping is as muddy as the mix, and as ill-advised as his previous rock excursion, which was with Linkin Park.

But faulting Jay for weak attempts at the avant-garde is to miss the point. Always an image more than a visionary, he lives and dies by his ego. It’s not important what his collaboration with Martin sounds like, only that he’s got the clout to collaborate with an artist of Martin’s stature. Even if the Neptunes turn in an average beat, it isn’t much worse than what they offered on Jay’s The Black Album. And if Dr. Dre’s four tracks seem to lack his usual spark, none of them fails completely. Everybody knows that Jay’s persona is what will make or break the album, not the backing tracks.


And that’s where Kingdom Come dies. The hungry Jay — the Jay who always seemed to think he was one step behind Nas, the Jay who saw commercial success but wanted industry respect — is dead. Long live the fat, content King of New York. Gone is the fighter who clawed his way to the top with 2001’s The Blueprint. What’s left of Jay is a salesman halfheartedly trying to convince everyone that 30 is the new 20. It’s a routine that’s going over well with Def Jam stockholders. But in the hip-hop boardroom, fans are thinking: sell.

Retirement lasted three years for Jay-Z — about a year longer than the Game’s absence from the racks. So whose comeback is the Game’s new Doctor’s Advocate (Geffen) anyway? The Compton MC has gone through a lot since The Documentary put his home town back on the map. When 50 Cent decided Game wasn’t giving him enough credit for his success, he kicked him out of G-Unit. It could have been the end of the Game, who at that point hadn’t shown much talent on the mic and had mostly depended on excellent production to deliver the quality goods. Things got even worse for Jayceon Taylor when word of his pre-Game-fame appearance on the dating-game show Change of Heart made the rounds. At the end of his cameo on a TV show that has already become part of hip-hop lore, “JT” decides to “Stay Together,” but his girl picks “Change of Heart.” Snap!

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  Topics: Music Features , Elvis Presley, Timbaland, Celebrity News,  More more >
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