CD Review of American Gangster by Jay-Z
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Label
Def Jam
Jay-Z: American Gangster

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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L
ike few other artists in the genre, Jay-Z has made a career out of dodging expectations. Even at the height of his popularity – an elevation that, it’s worth noting, he still seemingly occupies – the rapper his mom named Shawn Carter has displayed a remarkable willingness to move when it would have been easier (and possibly more remunerative) to stand still. It should be less than surprising, then, that after breaking his brief, self-imposed recording retirement with the underwhelming Kingdom Come a year ago, he’s decided to follow it up with the rap equivalent of Madonna’s I’m Breathless album. American Gangster was inspired by, and features numerous clips of dialogue from, the Ridley Scott-directed film of the same name – but it isn’t a soundtrack. It traces the rough arc of the film’s protagonist, drawing on Jay-Z’s own memories of his time as a dealer, but it isn’t really a concept album, nor is it much of an autobiography. And now that we’ve established what American Gangster isn’t, we can pinpoint what it is: A (perhaps unexpectedly) solid effort from one of rap’s reigning MCs, one that’s been issued to near-universal acclaim during what until recently seemed to be – and, given most hip-hop shelf lives, by all rights should be – at least the late afternoon of his career.

Try to absorb Gangster as a coherent piece of storytelling, or look to it as a musical companion to the film, and it’ll frustrate you; for one thing, the film’s true-life protagonist, Frank Lucas, suffered a fall every bit as compellingly precipitous as his rise, but Jay-Z has experienced no such thing – and even if he had, his occasionally cartoonish braggadocio would probably keep him from saying so. For another thing, Jay-Z steps out of the album’s “concept” whenever it’s convenient to do so. The most noticeable example of the latter occurs on “Ignorant Shit,” a Black Album outtake that offers him an opportunity to ride a “Between the Sheets” sample while hurling insults at would-be cultural moralists – the track clearly doesn’t belong on an album that’s supposed to tell this story, which might be a problem if it wasn’t packed with laugh-out-loud lines like “Actually believe half of what you see / None of what you hear, even if it's spit by me / And with that being said, I will kill niggas dead.”

Narrative hiccups aside, as a listening experience, Gangster is admirably cohesive; Jay-Z and crew have opted – sensibly, given the album’s nominal focus – for a shadowy, fluid aesthetic that leans heavily on ‘70s funk. (And they aren’t shy about it, either; five tracks in, the listener has already been treated to samples of Hank Marvin, Marvin Gaye, and Barry White classics.) Jay’s flow cuts a smooth ribbon through the album; whether you come looking for his signature dense wordplay or unorthodox delivery – both wonderfully evident on “No Hook” – you’ll find what you’re looking for here. He occasionally opts for a double play when you expect him to hit one into the parking lot – for all its chest-thumping and evocations of crazy success, the horn-frosted “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)” never really delivers a hook – but nothing here will give his detractors as much cause for celebration as, say, Kingdom’s “Beach Chair.” He’s treading old ground, but doing it with confidence.

This is readily apparent on “Success” – arguably the album’s best, most insidious track, the No I.D. production offers up a sparse beat (and a killer sample from Larry Ellis’ “Funky Thing [Part 1]”), leaving Jay plenty of room to serve himself sharp volleys, building 3:30 worth of tension without ever managing a satisfying release. It sounds hungry, in other words – which is at least somewhat ironic, given how obviously it draws on The Black Album’s “Public Service Announcement.” To hear some critics talk, Jay’s entering the same sort of artistic paradigm shift that Dylan did in ’66. This may be true – but it seems equally likely that he’s starting to circle the drain, and running out of things to say. Still, as long as he keeps talking with this much style, it’s hard to argue with the results.

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