Hova offers masterful tenth album
Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter has brought Hollywood directly to rap's front door. Over and done with building albums on his "girls, girls, girls," Jay adopts the role of a reminiscing drug dealer from the '70s with a laid back demeanor in "American Gangster." Jay-Z draws inspiration from Frank Lucas, a heroin-dealing kingpin from the '70s and the main focus of the 2007 Ridley Scott film also named "American Gangster." While the album itself is not told from the eyes of Lucas, Jay-Z creates a similarly successful ambitious hustler. Following the faint 2006 comeback album "Kingdom Come," his tenth is an impressive concept album that flows almost flawlessly from beginning to end.
"American Gangster" opens weakly with an intro made exclusively from Denzel Washington's lines from the movie and Idris Elba's ridiculous British accent. Jay-Z himself doesn't speak a word until "Pray," a fluid Diddy/Hitmen-produced track that opens the rise-and-fall story of his character. Jay takes a look at the hardcore life on New York's streets with its crooked cops and drug-based ways.
The album takes its first real trip to the 70s in "American Dreamin'," which features the soulful voice of Marvin Gaye from "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" and well-placed violin accompaniment. Jay raps about how his ambitions changed with time ("Mama forgive me, should be thinkin' bout Harvard//But that's too far away, [n-word] are starving//ain't nothin' wrong with aim, just gotta change the target") and how he hoped to get involved in the hustling game.
The following take, "Hello Brooklyn 2.0," featuring former rival Lil' Wayne, is the only low point of this album. Weezy's singing is barely differentiable from that of a wounded duck in what was meant to be a loving tribute to Jay-Z's neighborhood. The two rap stars' attempt in relating Brooklyn to a "fine" girl worthy of having Wayne's baby is questionable. Producer Bigg D manages to somewhat save the track by utilizing a Beastie Boys sample in a catchy beat.
"No Hook" reflects Jay's tough attitude in the game, relating himself directly to Lucas with "Please don't compare me to other rappers//compare me to trappers I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris//and Luda's my dude I ain't trying to diss//like Frank Lucas is cool but I ain't trying to snitch." The next few tracks boast the height of Jay-Z's success, beginning with the single "Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)," marked by confident, blaring horns.
"Sweet" continues the trend leading the way to "I Know," featuring the electro-synth work of The Neptunes. The Michael Jordan of rap amazingly switches from dealer to drug; he speaks to a junkie as though he is the fix ("I know what you like, I am your prescription//I'm your physician, I'm your addiction.") "Party Life" takes one last look at the good life before the fall.
The next track, "Ignorant S**t" featuring Beanie Sigel, is one of the most complete on the album, but doesn't fit in with the storyline. Rather than continue the tale, Jay-Z takes a break to verbally defend rap. The Just Blaze-produced beat combined with "Black Album"-esque lyrical content makes this track a Jay classic.
Following is "Say Hello," which establishes Jay-Z as the all-business type against a background of DJ Toomp's smooth work. Nasir "Nas" Jones makes an appearance in "Success." The two ex-rivals each make their own swaggering claims; Jay with "[N-word] said Hova was over, such dummies//even if I fell, I'd land on a bunch of money" and Nas with "Old cribs I sold, y'all drive by like monuments//Google Earth Nas, I got flats in other continents." Both have gone at it over the years, but this effort marks each as a top professional, spitting verses like there's nothing to it.
Jay-Z officially ends with "Fallin'," the telling of the inevitable fall of the drug lord. But he adds two more bonus tracks, one produced by The Neptunes and the other by Just Blaze. "Blue Magic" is actually the first single on the album and refers to the extremely potent form of heroin dealt by Frank Lucas. "American Gangster" ends with a track of the same name, a culmination of his life.
Combining Jay-Z's lyrical genius with the widespread talents of top tier producers like Diddy and Just Blaze is the recipe for pure greatness. "American Gangster" would be the perfect step off the rap stage for the aging-like-fine-wine Hova.
Nitin Sukumar. Nitin's middle name is Antonio Gates. More »