As retirements go, Jay-Z's paltry three-year absence from the rap game seems more like an extended vacation - although the workaholic Shawn Carter has doubtless spent the time not lounging pool-side, but poring over balance sheets and strategy documents as the chief executive and president of Def Jam. Indeed, one wonders at what point it was that he and his fellow executives decided that the company's waning profile required the return of its leading player, like the Chicago Bulls tempting Michael Jordan back from his brief flirtation with minor-league baseball.
Certainly, it doesn't appear as if it was the most enthusiastic of leaps back into the fray. "Gotta admit, a little bit, I was sick of rap," he concedes on the title-track, "But despite that, the boy is back." Except that, for much of the album, Jay-Z seems keen to emphasise how far beyond boyhood he has grown. In "30 Something" he boasts of now smoking Cubans instead of blunts, and of indulging his wealth with a little taste and restraint. But then, at a certain level of celebrity - certainly that at which he and Beyoncé hang out with Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow - discretion assumes far greater importance than self-advertisement. Speaking of which, the megastars' platinum-plated friendship results here in the unusual Jay-Z/Coldplay collaboration "Beach Chair", undoubtedly the oddest piece either party has been involved in, with Martin's crepuscular chords furnishing the backdrop to Jay-Z's rap about life inside and out of the comfort zone: "Life is but a beach chair/Songs like a Hallmark card, until you reach here" - lines that, surely, can't be a sly dig at the blandness of the lyrics on the band's X&Y album? Can they?
As you'd expect, the twin themes of "I'm back!" and "I'm rich!" dominate the album, with the briefest of nods to the more socially-conscious issue of America's post-Katrina shame in "Minority Report" - suggesting that, for all his verbal facility, Jay-Z could use a touch more imagination as regards subject matter. Musically, too, the album is more accomplished than innovatory (that "Walk On The Wild Side" bassline just sounds so old now). But there are several notable moments nonetheless, including "Beach Chair", Swizz Beatz's dynamic beat to "Dig A Hole", and The Neptunes' best groove in ages underpinning "Anything" with an infectious, scuttling cow bell. The most distinctive production on the album, however, is on "Do U Wanna Ride", where Kanye West and the smoky-voiced John Legend give their old mentor an indication of how the hip-hop terrain has changed during his time in the boardroom. Duly minuted, I'm sure.
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