After settling into the top job at Def Jam, the CEO coaxed his biggest artist -- himself -- to record ''Kingdom Come,'' the comeback disc that tops EW's list of must-hear fall albums
Credit: Jay-Z Photograph By Jeff Riedel

According to Jay-Z, people should tell the truth, whether they happen to be a multiplatinum-selling rap icon, a major-label president, or a drug dealer. He should know. Born Shawn Carter 36 years ago and raised in Brooklyn’s grim Marcy Projects, Jay-Z is the only person on the face of the planet with all three occupations on his résumé. ”In life, anything, just be yourself,” he says this August evening, largely ignoring the glass of cabernet beside him at the bar of Manhattan’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. ”You don’t have to be like that in the record business. You can be conniving and nothing happens to you. But I can’t put up a front. On the street, you had to be a straight-up guy, you had to stand by your word. Because something could happen to you…”

Yes, Jay-Z is a man of his word. Except, it seems, when he isn’t. In 2002, the rapper declared that his next CD, The Black Album, would also be his last. His future lay not in the beats but in the boardroom. And that ambition became a reality when, in December 2004, he was announced as the new president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings. How to explain, then, the news that this fall Jay-Z will release a new CD, Kingdom Come? ”It was the worst retirement, maybe, in history,” he admits. And then he launches into an impromptu a cappella preview of the title track, which was inspired by a 1996 comic in which Superman comes out of retirement to save the world. The lyrics that effortlessly roll off his tongue may help explain his return: ”Take off the blazer/Loosen up the tie/Step inside the booth/Superman is alive!”

So without further ado, let us welcome, and celebrate, the return of Jay-Z, a.k.a. Jigga, a.k.a. Hova. He is, arguably, the most powerful man in the music business — but without his music, well, he’s just Clark Kent.

Truth is, most people took Jay-Z’s retirement declaration with a shovelful of salt. For good reason: The rapper had, in fact, been threatening to stop making CDs since 1996, when the success of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, ensured that he would never return to the hard-knock life of Marcy Projects. And yet following Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z recorded a new studio album every year for the next seven years. Each went platinum or better, with 1998’s Vol 2: Hard Knock Life alone selling 5 million copies. 2001’s The Blueprint was an instant soul-drenched classic, while the eclectic, triple-platinum Black Album features some of Jay-Z’s most memorable tracks, including the thunderous, Rick Rubin-overseen ”99 Problems.” So even after it became clear that Jay-Z was taking his new label role very, very seriously, there may have been only one person who truly thought he was retired: Jay-Z himself. ”I believed it, yeah,” Jay-Z insists. ”I believed it for two years.”

But at the start of this summer, his feelings changed.