Author: Eric Roddie
Even for the most devoted Jay-Z fan, last year’s Kingdom Come was a little hard to defend. Not only did it feature some of the more uninspired production of his career, no thanks to a newly musically bankrupt Dr. Dre, but the whole “mature record” concept came off as forced and Jay’s flow had noticeably declined. Apparently after seeing an advance screening of American Gangster, Jay decided to bring back his more street-oriented lyricism on his new album of the same name.
When I first heard the direction Jay was going, I was a little skeptical. In my mind, the album could’ve gone two ways: on-point rapping and lyricism detailing the highs and lows of his pre-music, drug-dealing life, or a pandering move to make simplified and arguably irresponsible drug rap a la Young Jeezy and Rick Ross. Thankfully, the album ends up being the former, and is easily some of Jay’s best work.
The big surprise in this album’s production came when Jay revealed that a bunch of it was being produced by Diddy and two new members of his Hitmen team who’ve been out of the hip-hop picture for a while now. Diddy’s team handles almost half of the beats here, and there isn’t a dud among them. Other than the celebratory horn-driven “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is) . . . ,” none of their productions are really single material, but they root their sample-based aesthetic in classic ’70s soul and give the album a full, vibrant sound that adds to Jay’s intricate lyricism.
Of course, a Jay album wouldn’t be Jay without bangers, and American Gangster has its share of them, even if none will become as ubiquitous as past smashes like “Big Pimpin” and “I Just Wanna Love U.” “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” finds Jay rapping smoothly over a throwback Beastie Boys-sample bass rumble, and while it’s disappointing that self-proclaimed “best rapper alive” Lil Wayne doesn’t even try to out-rap Jay, his raspy singing meshes well with the track. “I Know” has a flashy synth-based beat from the Neptunes-without-Chad Hugo (Pharrell’s apparently incapable of crediting himself solo). The previously unreleased “Ignorant Shit” is easily one of the album’s best tracks, featuring one of Jay’s most entertaining performances as he rationalizes the contrast between his serious songs and his more shallow hit material.
Ultimately, the reason American Gangster succeeds so well is because it couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a Jay-Z album. There’re no questionable attempts at a Southern rap sound, no unnecessary guests and no half-assed “grown man” raps Kingdom Come-style. Instead, American Gangster finds Jay saving his legacy as the best rapper alive with a cinematic, well-rounded album that doesn’t have a single outright skippable track. Kanye West may have released the more sonically ambitious record this year, but American Gangster ranks among this year’s top rap albums-even if it doesn’t manage to outsell Curtis “Vitamin Water” Jackson.
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