Back on his 44th birthday, Jay Z did his fans, detractors and everybody else a favor. He hopped on his now defunct website Life + Times to rank his albums from best to worst. To the surprise of no one, he placed his comeback-from-retirement album Kingdom Come beneath the rest of his discography both literally and figuratively. “First game back, don’t shoot me,” he said, thus admitting that the comeback from his Def Jam corporate takeover was more Jordan with the Wizards than Jordan for the second three-peat.
Nobody was arguing his ranking, even Jay and Kingdom Come‘s most staunch supporters would have to admit there are notable misfires on the album. “Anything” may be the worst song of his storied career, “30 Something” was a laughable attempt to make old seem cool and “Hollywood” was simply grating. Even the return single “Show Me What You Got,” produced by Just Blaze, was a flashy, hollow attempt at a restoration of the legend of Jay Z.
But much like Jordan’s time with Washington, there were moments where the old Hov we knew and loved poked through and flashed what truly could have been, like when the album opened with “Prelude,” a chorus-less intro to the album over a smooth B-Money production. For nearly three minutes, Jay laments his past life “before The Answer was a 3.” Today is the tenth anniversary of that album, so let’s take a look back through what it means now.
In retrospect, “The Prelude” planted the seeds of nostalgia and recollection that would make Jay’s next album, American Gangster, a classic, he sounded motivated, refreshed and despite being the top of the food chain it felt like he had a chip on his shoulder. On this track at least, he was out to prove that not only did he still have it, he was still better than anybody else stepping into a booth.
Jay doesn’t waste a syllable, let alone a bar, immediately kicking things off with an attack on the industry he left behind and the changes that had taken place since 2003’s The Black Album. “The game’s f***ed up, n****’s beats is banging,” he raps. “N***a your hooks did it, your lyrics didn’t, your gangsta look did it.” It could be seen as a slight at just about any rapper of the moment. 50 Cent? Sure. Constant foe The Game? Probably, and he definitely gets a direct shot later in the track anyway.
Though he spends time critiquing the industry, Jay quickly hops into his time machine to discuss his past life, and how the hustler Jay Z helped shape the businessman and label executive Shawn Carter. “But I’m just a hustler disguised as a rapper,” he raps before reminding everybody of his credentials.
Back when crack was, what these pills are,
I was a real star, complete with real cars,
No video ones, you can come and set up a camera, let the video run
And my real life, complete with real ice
VVS boulders all invisibly set
Head and shoulders, my invisible neck
You see Hova wasn’t digital yet
Before Steve Jobs made the iPod
Was gettin’ head jobs, we call that intimate
Back when rappers wouldn’t dare play lyrical roulette
With a automatic weapon I was rappin’ with a Tec
Fresh like Mannie be, chain like anti-freeze
Shoebox full of cash, dealer man hand me ki’s
Pantries full of Arm & Hammer, don’t take Nancy Drew to see
What it do, I’m a damn G
Just sent a million dollars through a hands free
That’s big money talk, can you answer me?
Before the answer was a 3
I was down in Georgetown with a Hoya chick, lawyer chick
Sure he’s rich now cause he saw the shit, all this shit
That’s why they call him Hov’, cause he came before all this shit
Bought a 6, quarter seven, skipped on them quarter eights
Bought a 9 for non-stop Glock work all the time
Though he couldn’t quite live up to the promise of that disgusting display of what he still had under the hood, it was apparent, he still had to shake some rust off but the real was definitely back.
Ultimately he couldn’t string together an entire project off that. No, that would come a year later, after some motivation from an early screening of Denzel Washington’s turn as Frank Lucas in the biopic American Gangster. It was there he regained the proper motivation and requisite focus needed to hone his ability into an album worthy of his legendary reputation. Jay wasn’t all the way back on Kingdom Come, but he was working himself into shape. “Prelude” was a preview of what could have been, and he eventually did deliver on the promises he made during that impeccable three minutes.