Jay-Z – American Gangster

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My man. But Jay-Z’s wrong: it’s more than “only entertainment” (“Ignorant Shit”) and it’s not “black superhero music” (“Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)…”); it’s simply “superhero music.” Like The Black Album, itself a statement album, that followed the guest-heavy and mediocre The Blueprint^2: The Gift and the CurseAmerican Gangster follows the guest-heavy and mediocre Kingdom Come and it’s statement is clear: the comeback album to come back after the most mediocre of comeback albums; “Niggas said Hova was over, such dummies.” 

Though people tout this as a concept album because it’s named after, was inspired by and samples the movie with the same name, it’s not. In popmatters’ Mike Schiller’s words, “Thematically, the album is a fairly typical hip-hop entry rife with self-aggrandizement, shout-outs to a city or two (“Hello Brooklyn 2.0”), a few guest stars, a battle track or two, an ode to God, and a sexcapade or two.  Anybody looking in American Gangster‘s direction for an album that is going to elevate the genre as a whole is going to be disappointed, because in the grand scheme, it really is just another hip-hop album.” If there is a real underlying theme here, it’s the same as it was on The Black Album: a (in this case, mostly) lone Jay-Z setting out to prove himself over an a-list of producers. And so he does, and so he does; his last good album. 

Is it perfect? No. You can ditch the 2-minute intro track immediately; the beat in “No Hook” is much too sparse for its own good. Meanwhile, of the three guest rappers, only Nas delivers: though Lil Wayne doesn’t say anything frighteningly dumb as he sometimes can, he doesn’t say anything of value either on “Hello Brooklyn 2.0,” probably because he has as much to do with Brooklyn as I do (I’m from and live in Toronto) and Beanie Sigel’s really short verse on “Ignorant Shit” is both short and superfluous, and the way the beat suddenly cuts out and comes back when Jay-Z introduces it (“And the first thing I’mma do is free Sigel, go,” at the 2:18 mark) suggests it was pasted in after everything was completed for some contract obligation. And “Blue Magic” was a bad choice for a heralding single (wisely left off and delegated to a bonus track) with Pharrell essentially recreating “Grindin’” without as addicting a drum sound or chorus.

But the beats! Not only do Jay-Z’s regulars deliver as expected, but they might deliver some of the best beats they’ve ever given to Hova, Pharrell cooks up a hell of a melodic and rhythmic (as expected for Pharrell) line that drives “I Know”; the organ absolutely screams throughout No I.D. and Jermaine Dupri’s “Success” (“Let the bitch breathe,” indeed), while there’s an indelible soul sample used throughout No I.D.’s “Ignorant Shit” while the synths play a game of “who can bang the loudest” with the drums. Meanwhile, an oriental string line helps prevent DJ Troomp’s “Say Hello” from being completely forgettable. Diddy, Sean C & LV are responsible for the bulk of the album, and they kill it for the most part. First proper song “Pray” seeks to put the most intense scenes of the 3 hour movie shoved into 3 minutes: a ringing sample, string embellishments, gospel choirs, all sorts of sound effects and some Beyonce thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, R&B samples from the 70s from Marvin Gaye (“American Dreamin'”) to Little Beaver (“Party Life”) help set the album, providing a melodic backbone to their respective songs. Finally, Kanye West seems to have absorbed “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)…” into “All of the Lights” three years later, what, with its triumphant horns and bringing in big names to cheerlead but not crediting them. 

Big deal, you say. You can get good beats on the Jay-Z albums that came after. What separates American Gangster from the albums Jay-Z makes afterwards? Well, the rapping. On “Ignorant Shit,” he questions the tired tropes of the genre by approaching it sarcastically while putting down all the rappers around him, “They’re all weirdos, DeNiros in practice / So don’t believe everything your earlobe captures; / It’s mostly backwards / Unless it happens to be as accurate as me / And everything said in song you happen to see / Then, actually, believe half of what you see / None of what you hear, even if it’s spat by me / And with that said, I will kill niggas dead.” Meanwhile, lines like “I used to give a fuck, now I give a fuck less / What do I think of success? it sucks, too much stress” (“Success”) and ““Stay outta trouble,” momma said as momma sighed / Her fear: her youngest son be a victim of homicide / But I gotta get you outta here momma, or I’mma die …inside / And either way, you lose me momma so let loose of me” (“No Hook”) are some of the last examples of his greatness as an emcee, if not the last. After this, he’ll realize catchphrases are easier to write than wordplay.

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