Much has changed since 2003, when Jay-Z released his supposed swan song, The Black Album. He became CEO of Def Jam, teamed with Kofi Annan on a United Nations clean-water project, added pals like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin to his speed dial, appeared in an HP ad, and made the Côte d'Azur his new summer playground. So it's no surprise that Kingdom Come, his ninth studio album, reflects the 36-year-old megamillionaire's global stature. ''Lunch with Mandela, dinner with Cavalli/Still got time to give water to everybody,'' he rhymes on the over-the-top headbanger ''Oh My God,'' one of three ridiculously funky cuts produced by Just Blaze, who has consistently been Jay-Z's best beat supplier.
Such peerless bragging and luxury-brand name-checking (Hermès Birkin bags, Bergdorf Goodman, Opus One wines) appears on a full third of Kingdom Come. In less proficient hands, it would be tiresome. But Jay-Z's coolly virtuosic delivery is irresistible; tracks like the syncopated title cut, created from a sample of Rick James' ''Super Freak,'' will have you jiggling like a bobblehead doll in an earthquake. Even so, it's when he puts down the Robb Report and gets reflective that this comeback really begins to live up to the fuss. The deceptively sweet-sounding gospel strut of ''Lost One'' has him bidding goodbye to a ''beautiful soul'' (his dead nephew), a ''brainless'' former friend (Damon Dash, perhaps?), and someone named ''B,'' who may or may not be Beyoncé: ''I don't think, it's meant to be, B/For she loves her work, more than she does me.'' On unexpected trip-hop closer ''Beach Chair,'' Hova questions his legacy and speaks to an imagined unborn child, while Coldplay's Chris Martin (whose soft rock is oddly beloved by the rap cognoscenti) coos an ethereal chorus over echoey drums. Hurricane Katrina is his focus on the gripping ''Minority Report,'' his clenched vocals expressing anger, guilt, and hopelessness in one long breathless rant.
These stellar cuts back up Jay-Z's claim that he's ''the Mike Jordan of recording.'' Unfortunately, the disc goes soft in the center, with refried versions of the rapper's past hits: ''Hollywood'' is a brassy, sassy R&B song (featuring Beyoncé) with a chorus that belongs in a Vegas revue, not a hip-hop album. ''Anything'' is a rote strip-club bounce with a particularly awkward Usher hook, and ''Dig a Hole'' is a clumsy dis track. Even ''I Made It,'' a sweet tribute to his mother, wilts in comparison to 2001's similarly themed ''Blueprint (Momma Loves Me).'' Four duds out of 14 tracks isn't a fireable offense. But shouldn't the corner-office mogul demand more of his top earner? B