It was a statement that no one quite believed—like “Click here to claim your prize!” or “I promise I’ll pull out”—so when the Jigga Man first spoke of his retirement four years ago, his loyal following was hardly alarmed.

“My next album will be The Black Album, and then that’s it,” he told the Los Angeles Times in November, 2002. “I want to make it a prequel to Reasonable Doubt, leading up to me having an idea for a song … I’m going to loop the whole thing back together, make it a nice package, and that’s it. It truly, truly is.” Exactly one year later, he dropped The Black Album, as promised, and followed it up with his “final” performance at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden. Tickets sold out in one day.

Since then, Hov has stayed busier than many rappers at their prime: He has toured the world, released collaborative projects with R. Kelly (Unfinished Business) and Linkin Park (Collision Course), appeared on a number of other artists’ tracks, celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Reasonable Doubt with a performance at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and, most notably, became the president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings.

Earlier this year, there were rumblings of a new album when producers such as Timbaland, Kanye and Pharrell all reportedly said they were contributing to the project. In September, Jay confirmed the inevitable: He was coming out of retirement.

“It was the worst retirement, maybe, in history,” Jay told Entertainment Weekly magazine. Later, he added: “Something, when you love it, is always tugging at you and itching, and I was putting it off and putting it off. I started fumbling around to see if it felt good.” It apparently did.

This past summer, Jay quietly worked on his latest album, Kingdom Come, named after the 1996 DC Comics series in which Superman comes out of retirement to save the world. Three songs leaked in advance, the first being the album’s title track and expected single, on which Just Blaze flips Rick James’ “Super Freak.” Interestingly, Blaze had originally made the beat for the sole purpose of posting it on his MySpace page to prove that it was in fact his — and “in 30 seconds,” no less. Soon after, ?uestlove of the Roots heard it, said that it was meant for Jay and insisted that he had to hear it. Blaze hollered at the Jigga Man, and the rest is history. On it, Jay spits: “Just when you thought the whole world fell apart/I take off the blazer, loosen up the tie/Step inside the booth, Superman is alive!”

The second track, “Show Me What You Got,” is also produced by Blaze, and samples Public Enemy’s “Show ’Em Whatcha Got.” AllHipHop.com reported that the suits and ties at Def Jam were apparently so incensed at the song’s Oct. 6 leak that they threatened to call for an FBI investigation, but there are varying stories around this, such as it was a deliberate publicity stunt, or that Def Jam had intended to leak it, but not as early as it ended up leaking. The accompanying video, shot in Monaco and featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, premiered Oct. 16.

The third track to leak is “Lost Ones,” featuring a more emotional and sleepy-sounding Jay over a mellow piano loop. Over the course of three verses, he speaks on the losses of a friend and business partner (likely Damon Dash), a woman who loves her work more than she loves him (very likely Beyoncé), and his nephew Colleek D. Luckie, who died in a car crash last year.

The album dropped Nov. 21, and all of this comes at an interesting time. Jay was photographed on the shoot for “Show Me What You Got” just one week after announcing his “unretirement,” and in the following weeks , he landed several magazine covers and toured the world, selling out shows overseas (see Chris Penrose’s story in this issue).

He then grabbed tons more media coverage on Nov. 18, via a frenzied promotional trek in which he played seven 30 minute concerts in seven different U.S. cities. He started at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. in Atlanta, closing out with a 3 a.m (Sunday) show in Las Vegas.

This coincided with some folks beginning to question the lack of promotion for some other Def Jam artists, such as the Roots and Method Man, who ended up selling just over a modest 60,000 copies each their first weeks.

“Niggas at Def Jam is pushin’ niggas off the diving board,” Joe Budden told MTV.com. His sophomore album, The Growth, has been pushed back for months. In a separate interview with MVRemix.com, he added: “It’ll drop before ’07 or I’m gonna go slit my wrists somewhere.”

New York’s Daily News reported that LL Cool J was also heard taking shots at Jay during the MTV VMAs, saying: “I think Def Jam needs to be a better promoter of hip-hop. I think Jay-Z does a very good job…of promoting Jay-Z.”

And then there is one Nasir Jones, Jay’s nemesis-turned-BFF, who signed with Def Jam in January, 2006. Months earlier, he and Jay had ended their years-long rivalry when Jay brought him onstage at his now-historic “I Declare War” concert and the two performed “Dead Presidents” together to a frenzied crowd. His highly-anticipated forthcoming album, Hip-Hop is Dead, was once rumored to drop in September, but has since been pushed back to December, amid rumors that it will be delayed even more. Nas has said that producers will include Salaam Remi, L.E.S., will.i.am, DJ Premiere and some Dr. Dre. As of press time, there has been no official promotion for it.

Of course, it would be too easy—and misleading—to place the blame squarely on the label’s most visible and celebrated figure, but it is certainly the stuff that rap dreams are made of. It is the fight of the year: two heavyweights squaring off following an intense rivalry, an uproarious crowd whose divide has only deepened since their supposed truce, and everything is at stake. The lights are flickering, and Kelis and Beyoncé are cheering from the ringside. This one is for the history books.

The hip-hop community waits with baited breath.

 

Cover Photo courtesy of: HBR