Jay-Z American Gangster

[Def Jam; 2007]

Styles: hip-hop, crass commercial tie-ins
Others: {Blueprint}-era Jay-Z

Discard what you’ve heard about Jay-Z’s latest disc, American Gangster, being some sort of high-conceptual work based on Ridley Scott’s latest film of the same name. It might make for good press release and cross-promotional material, but given his CEO status and appearances on Charlie Rose, one gets the feeling that the conceptual claims do little more than throw unsuspecting mainstream listeners off of the truthful detailing of Jay’s past hustling life.

His fans know better, however. When the dust settles, Shawn Carter is spitting rhymes about Shawn Carter, and Gangster is all the better for it. After the stumble that was 2006’s Kingdom Come, Jay-Z has become even more lyrically focused than he was on 2003’s still-overrated The Black Album, regaining both his sense of playfulness and urgency.

Almost immediately, Jay sets the stage with “Pray,” weaving a tale of school classrooms with “dope needles on the ground”, corrupt policemen, a vengeful father, and other evocative imagery before revealing that “Everything I seen made me everything I am/ Bad drug dealer or victim, I beg/ What came first/ Moving chickens or the egg?” All of this is backed with a beat by Diddy And The Hitmen (yes, that Diddy) that can’t be referred to as anything else other than truly cinematic, with a decaying, stuttering riotous cry echoing throughout that only strengthens the song’s theme of youth slowly fading away -- not from the bullet in the pistol, but from being the one pulling the trigger.

Together, Diddy And The Hitmen produce six tracks on Gangster, including “No Hook,” where the squealing blues guitar notes buried in the mix add ominous overtones to the Rubicon-crossing of Jay’s proclamations, and current chart hit “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is...).” “Roc Boys” is undoubtedly one of the most grin-inducing tracks in Jay-Z’s catalogue, from the Rocky-esque horns and shuffling drumbeat that back it to Jay’s giving “Thanks to the duffle bag/ The brown paper bag/ The Nike shoe box/ For holding all this cash” while riding the beat close to the vest.

Perhaps fittingly, Jay-Z saves the record’s two jaw-dropping moments for near its conclusion: “Say Hello” and the Nas-guesting “Success.” The former, produced by DJ Toomp of T.I.’s titanic “What You Know,” is a Blueprint-era throwback complete with lush strings, Carpenters-era horns, and wordless gospel invocations as Jay mixes the verses with both humor and state-of-the-nation assessments: “And if Al Sharpton is speakin’ for me/ Somebody give him the word/ And tell him I don’t approve/ Tell him I remove the curses/ If he can tell me our schools gon’/ Be perfect/ When Jena Six don’t exist tell him/ That’s when I’ll stop sayin’ bitch/ Bitch!” “Success,” on the other hand, rides a scorching-hot-shit organ line and fuzzed-out drums courtesy of No I.D. and Jermaine Dupri, as Jay sounds positively pissed off (and borrows from Eminem at the same time): “I used to give a fuck/ But now I can give a fuck less/ What do I think of success/ It sucks, too much stress”. It’s undoubtedly the most furiously hungry Shawn Carter’s sounded on wax in a long while, and although Nas fails to match his intensity, he does drop one of the year’s more outright hilarious lines: “The best jewelers want to make my things/ I make Jacob shit on Lorraine/ Just to make me a chain.”

Gangster does occasionally falter; both “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” and “Ignorant Shit,” with guest appearances by Lil Wayne and Beanie Sigel, respectively, are weak, tuneless, and ultimately forgettable. Overall, however, Jay-Z has rebounded to make one of the year’s most interesting and engaging rap records with a sense of immediacy and wordplay that no Denzel Washington film could match.

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