DAR Hip Hop: The Battle Of Post-Retirement Jay-Z (2006-2018)
It was brought to my attention that perhaps Jay-Z is no longer the same MC he used to be. Well, obviously. If you count his days next to Jaz-O, Jay has been rapping for the better part of the last 30 years, though only officially releasing albums for the last 22. Still, regardless, if you were an MC making music for that long, perhaps you too would go through changes and growth as an artist. Look at every painter, every artist, every person even, and recognize that they go through changes and growth as well. You, the person reading this now, probably went through severe changes and growth in a one year period, so just imagine the changes and growth one could experience over the years as an artist. The topics you write about, the lyrics, everything in between would naturally change and you would expand your horizons right? Well, since his "retirement" in 2003, we have seen a change in Jay-Z for the most part, and many haven't been able to decide whether it is for better or worse. After returning officially to rap in 2006 with a comeback album, Jay has been strangely inconsistent, something that wasn't the case during his epic 1996-2003 run, where he released three possible classic albums, sold millions of records, and was the most consistent rapper during that time period.
Perhaps the hunger wasn't the same. Perhaps Jay wanted to come back as a different version of himself, but if the random verses he dropped during his "retirement" was any indication, he definitely had the ability to make the music we loved him for, as he shined bright on guest appearances on songs from Young Gunz, Kanye West, and of course the "Go Crazy" remix with Young Jeezy. However, no song gave us more promise of a Jay return than "Dear Summer", a smooth Just Blaze record that signaled a possible return in the future. I was excited at the prospect of a soulful Just Blaze produced album for Jay to signal his return and remind us all of what he does best. When it was announced that Jay would return to rap, I was intrigued to see where the album would go and how his comeback would truly work. It had only been three years without a Jay-Z album, so naturally, he would still be the same MC right? He would still be the same artist who gave us Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album right? Yes and no. When I heard the first single from his "comeback" album Kingdom Come, I was a bit disappointed. The Just Blaze produced "Show Me What You Got" was probably the wrong first single and while it was a decent song, something about it just felt off. I think we've grown to recognize that the first single from a Jay album isn't the best measure of the quality of the project ("Change Clothes" is the best example), but the truth is, this single didn't seem to signal a real comeback of a legend, but more of a legend just doing this for sport, or better yet, doing it for more for the endorsements and business end. Jay would enter multiple deals during the album's promotion and get paid in the process. Perhaps the motivation for Jay to come back and make an album was different this go round, but there were very few things executed correctly on this project.
Kingdom Come was released in November 2006, and it gave Jay the highest first week sales of his career up until that point, pushing 680,000 copies in the first week. The album itself? It felt like Ali in the 80s, Tyson in the 2000s, Jordan on the Wizards, well not Jordan on the Wizards, because Jordan on the Wizards was still able to drop 50 regularly with no issue if need be and was still a damn good player, but you get the point. Jay would have some great songs here, but the mediocre to average music overrides the greatness. I mean, the intro to the album is amazing, as Jay sounds polished on "The Prelude" and very honest on "Lost Ones", but those moments get lost in the sauce of the bland and boring sounds of "Trouble", the average lyrics on "Oh My God", the hilarity of the midlife crisis anthem "30 Something", the utter cringeworthy "Hollywood" with Beyonce, and the comedy of the Neptunes produced and Usher featured "Anything". Even the diss track "Dig A Hole" suffers from a weak hook and subpar lyrics from Jay. The production misses the mark more often than not, and honestly, Jay sometimes sounds like he doesn't even want to be there on his own album. Kingdom Come has flashes of brilliance, but aside from a few songs, it feels like one of Jay's worst albums instantly. It might be his worst.... well at least thus far.
With Jay, for every disappointment he's ever dropped, he usually bounces back inspired the next go round. That much is true for the Denzel Washington led film inspired project American Gangster. The unofficial soundtrack for the movie, Jay delivers an album that reminds us of exactly why he is who he is. Lyrically, Jay sounds at his best since honestly The Blueprint, and maybe even Reasonable Doubt. Some people seemed to dislike this album, which speaks more to their incompetence as a listener to me than just a difference of opinion. Jay found a perfect medium as an artist unsure of what to rap about next, turning to his prior experiences to bring an album that is more reflective than current and it works well. Ditching the production of Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Dr. Dre, and Timbaland for this project, Jay would seek the assistance of the new version of The Hitmen (Bad Boy's group of producers), as well as Just Blaze and The Neptunes to bring his vision to life and with tracks like "Pray", "Sweet", "Ignorant Shit", "American Dreamin", "Party Life", and "I Know", among others, Jay delivers a near classic album with virtually no skips. While some fans weren't as fond of the album, I thought this was the best project Jay released in his post retirement run, and is honestly my second or favorite Jay album ever. The fact that American Gangster exists showcased that when focused Jay can be amazing, but as soon as he showcased that, he would end up disappointing quickly again.
After American Gangster, I thought it was clear that on cinematic production and soulful beats, Jay shined the best and that he should work with producers who can provide him that. For whatever reason, Jay didn't seem to understand that, and as a result, the next few years of his career were strange honestly. In 2008, he returned with a few singles that were the worst of his career, none funnier than the awful "Jockin Jay-Z" and "Ghetto Techno". As a longtime Jay fan, I had to wonder what one of my all time favorite artists was thinking. What motivated him to make those songs? Who? Why? There were so many questions and then in the midst of that, we heard that the third edition of The Blueprint album series was coming. Surely, Jay would bring music that would fit what The Blueprint represented right? Right? Wrong. For all of the talk of artists who seem to have a lackluster ear for beats, Jay has definitely seemed to lose his ear for good beats as the years went by. After some of the horrible production on Kingdom Come, Jay bounced back with American Gangster before falling right into the same issues that plagued Kingdom Come on The Blueprint 3. As 2009 was nearing the end, we would see The Blueprint 3 released and in some ways, the album was ambitious. While ambitious usually means greatness, for Jay, this album is about as uneven as you can get. With No I.D. handling some production, along with Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and The Neptunes, it feels almost as if Jay made an album with the producers he left off of American Gangster out of loyalty to them. Maybe that's not the case, but I will give credit in some aspects to No I.D., as he is responsible for the best production on this album on tracks like the amazing "Thank You" and the solid "What We Talkin Bout" alongside Kanye.
However, it would be the tracks like the Drake featured "Off That", the awkward Kanye collab "Hate", the overrated Alicia Keys collab "Empire State Of Mind", and the Swizz featured "On To The Next One" that left me disappointed. These songs aren't terrible, but they just fall short of what you know Jay can do. While some were fans of this album enjoyed the tracks that featured the new blood of Kid Cudi and J. Cole, I found myself slightly bored at some of these tracks including "Already Home", which isn't a bad track, just a bit bland, "Venus vs Mars", which is hilarious for the wrong reasons, and of course, the really mediocre sound of "Young Forever", which sounds more pop than anything. Notice I did not mention the first two singles of "D.O.A.", which seemed to be an attempt to "end Autotune", and the Kanye and Rihanna featured "Run This Town", which was a popular song, but both tracks aren't anything special, and that's the issue with Blueprint 3. There is nothing special about the album, and it pales in comparison to his best work lyrically. It isn't a terrible album or his worst overall, but it is definitely in the bottom half of his catalog, and while some fans are fond of this album, I really don't see it. It had little to no replay value and it just didn't connect in the same manner that the other projects from Jay did. It was cool to see Jay embracing the youth of hip hop, but the issue lies in him attempting to adapt to their styles and sound instead of leading the way in the manner he had once before. All in all, BP3 was a disappointment, his second disappointing album in three releases since his return from retirement.
Jay had once said that he would return from retirement like Jordan wearing the 45, but at this point, it felt like he was anything but that. When it was announced that Jay would do a joint album with Kanye, skepticism existed about the album actually being released, which makes sense. We had never known Jay to be much of a team player, so the idea of a joint album seemed a bit far out, but in 2011, this would become a reality. Now, as a fan of music, I am usually objective, but with this album, I wanted to actually enjoy it and overhype it and overrate it because it is a powerhouse project. However, when Watch The Throne arrived, I found myself pretty disappointed. Some people said the album was a classic and I have to question what they were listening to. Nothing about this album was truly a classic IMO, and despite some of the good music, there are still songs that either fall flat or just feel lifeless. Songs like "Lift Off", "That's My Bitch", "Welcome To The Jungle", "Why I Love You", and "H.A.M.", really fall short of what I wanted this album to be, while tracks like "Otis", "Primetime", "Murder To Excellence", and "New Day" showcase what I wanted to this album to be, with "The Joy" hinting at what a classic Jay and Kanye record should have sounded like. Regardless, all of my personal disappointment aside, this album is better than BP3 and Kingdom Come, which is a positive in some ways, but it definitely does not live up to the hype of what a Jay and Kanye album should have been.
As 2012 was coming to an end, rumors persisted of a new Jay album being on the way. There were so many rumors of what it would sound like, but for the first time in his career, a number of fans were not extremely excited about the prospect of this album. Jay had disappointed for the most part, and even with another album on the way, one had to wonder what he had left to rap about and how he would execute his next album. When a commercial dropped promoting Jay's album in conjunction with Samsung, I instantly got Kingdom Come vibes. Jay wasn't making an album for the hunger of making it, but to see accomplishments for his music itself. When the album titled Magna Carta Holy Grail was released in July 2013 through Samsung phones (a weird concept) via an app, it seemed more like a business move than an album release. One listen to the album seemed to drive that thought process as well, as the album felt like excess in musical form, and honestly was just one big disappointment IMO. Jay would work closely with Timbaland on the record and perhaps that was the issue. Jay and Timbaland combined for hits in the past, but honestly, most of their work together post retirement has been lackluster. This aside, the album did manage to have a few good tracks, with "Picasso Baby", "F.U.T.W.", "Heaven", and maybe a few others. However, there are tracks like "Tom Ford", "Versus", and "BBC" that really seem to fall short and showcase Jay at his worst. Jay sounds disinterested at different periods in the album and lyrically, he's not saying much. There is no growth as an artist in this album, just an older rapper bragging and making an attempt at catchy tunes. Still, outside of a few tracks, MCHG just feels lifeless, a problem that has plagued most of the albums from Jay post retirement. He isn't hungry anymore and that's evident. He has little to rap about, and his attempt to showcase the personal side of his life in music always comes off a bit corny, at least post retirement. Jay used to shine on tracks that showed depth and emotion prior to retiring, but somehow, as he got older, that aspect got executed worse, which is confusing in some way. You would think an artist aging would allow him to become a much better artist and to make more personal and mature music, but Jay didn't seem interested in it.... at least not yet.
After the release of MCHG, Jay would take a break from releasing albums, but he did make guest appearances, none more noteworthy than his single with Future, "I Got The Keys". While the song itself was a decent hit, Jay rapping on trap beats never works. His flow sounds lost on those tracks and he always raps well below what we know he is capable of. The truth is, Jay sounds better over soulful production or at least production that suits his flow and lyricism better. Perhaps in his hiatus, Jay realized this and so came his newest album 4:44 in June 2017, which was well received and a response to Beyonce's Lemonade album. While I'm personally indifferent to the Lemonade album, I do have to speak positively about 4:44. Is it the best Jay album? Not at all. Is it the album we waited on him to make? Not even. However, it is an album that shows that Jay can make good music and a consistent album when focused. Some of the production falters at times, but 4:44 reminds you that when Jay gets soulful production that he can make great music. The album was produced in full by No I.D. and showcases Jay at his lyrical best since American Gangster, with amazing displays on tracks like "Smile", "Kill Jay-Z", "Family Feud", "Marcy Me", and the title track. It was a personal album that showcased what we thought Jay would transform into as an artist as he got older. He was a husband now, a father, and he was nearing 50. At this point, music for him is not about being the best, but perhaps doing it for sport and to tell his evolving story. 4:44 is an album that shows Jay at his most vulnerable and it works well. It is not a classic, but it definitely has some of the best music he has released in at least 8 years, and that was a win. The album was well received by fans and critics alike, and was the first album to receive that type of love since American Gangster. With 4:44, Jay created an album that he could be fine with riding into the sunset with and retiring for good. His time had passed, but he could still make an album that landed on all of the best album lists, earned award nominations, and received critical praise mostly all around the board. So, naturally, 4:44 should be the end of the Jay-Z career story, right?
Wrong. Recently, an album featuring Jay-Z and Beyonce was released to support their new tour. Let me just say I've never had a desire to listen to a Beyonce and Jay album, so when Everything Is Love released a little over a week ago, I had no problem ignoring it. However, life has a tendency to be funny sometimes and as a result, I would end up being forced to listen to the new album on a car ride to the beach, and I will admit, the album isn't as bad as I expected. It is still average, and features way too much rapping from Beyonce, but regardless, it is slightly better than I expected. Jay actually puts together a few decent verses, but for what? This is an album to celebrate the relationship and the "hardships" that Jay and Beyonce overcame to get to this point together, but it feels manufactured. It never feels real. There are very few real emotions expressed, just a generic lyric or two about love and some form of excess being discussed. No matter what your feeling is on this joint album, the fact is, Jay-Z post retirement has been an entirely different artist than the man who gave us "Imaginary Player", "Big Pimpin", "Never Change", and "Allure", and that's okay. Jay is nearing the age of 50, he has three children with his wife, he has many business investments, and nothing left to prove as an artist.
So, maybe, as this becomes more and more clear, Jay-Z can hang up the microphone and walk away from the music forever, or, and this seems more likely yet unlikely, the fans will have to learn to appreciate and respect watching an artist grow over a 20 plus year career and become what he is now. There lies the conundrum with post retirement Jigga. He didn't give us what we wanted musically because perhaps it isn't about what WE want musically. The artist dictates what they want to do with their art and as a fan, you either support it and like it, or you don't. It is as simple as that. Whether you loved or hated Kingdom Come, American Gangster, Blueprint 3, Watch The Throne, MCHG, 4:44, and Everything Is Love, the truth remains that Jay came back after retiring and put up nearly as many albums as he did before he walked away the first time. Jay is more Ric Flair in WWE circa 2002 than Shawn Michaels in his second run, but he still has some greatness within, it is just he chooses when to showcase it. Will there be another Jay-Z solo album? Or will Jay walk away forever with his legacy in tact and his legend forever etched as one of the greatest if not the greatest to ever do it? Time will tell.