Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Jay-Z / "American Gangster"

So much for leaving the rap game. Jay-Z is back with his second post-"retirement" album (and tenth overall), hoping to improve upon the mostly forgettable "Kingdom Come". If you weren't hinted off by the title, Jay was inspired to create the album based on the Ridley Scott film of the same name. The album ideally chronicles where the rapper would be had be chose to continue moving drugs (as he did prior to achieving fame) instead of becoming a rap entrepreneur, you know, like Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas character does in the film. Within this context, he still manages to name drop Roc-a-Fella records, sing about the life of parties and purchasing products too expensive for you to have heard of, and of course bitches. In other words, it's a Jay-Z album, but this time he's cross-marketing with a movie.

While the album unfortunately fails to differ topically from anything else in his post-"Reasonable Doubt" catalogue, listeners can at least find solace in the fact that it's at least a good Jay-Z album. It opens with possibly the best introduction track I've ever heard on a hip-hop album. It utilizes synths, strings, Spanish guitar, and various sound bytes and effects from the film. It leads brilliantly into the album's first song, "Pray". The production is grand, filling all possible space with sound and effects, as Jay lays down a crack rap good enough to be on par with Mobb Deep's "The Infamous". Opening with a number like this functions as both a blessing and a curse. As the track concluded, I felt that if he can keep this level up throughout the whole album he would produce something better than even his debut. Problem is, it's easily the best track on the album, so even great tracks like "American Dreamin'", "No Hook", and "Say Hello" seem slightly lesser in its wake.

The aforementioned "American Dreamin'" follows "Pray" and is great in its own right, enough so that the drop off from the previous track is minimal. Riding a quiet string backing, Jay continues to rhyme in the crack rap vein, albeit with an original twist based off his hypothetical story. Unfortunately, the lackluster "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" follows. The production features a frequently repeated and grating "Hello Brooklyn!" yell that sounds like it'd be more at place on the Beastie's "Check Your Head" than on a Jay-Z album. The song never gains momentum, and does little to advance the album. With fifteen tracks already on the album, I think it would have worked better had it been left off. At least it's followed by "No Hook" another track featuring film sound bytes, minimal production, and great rhymes.

It's after this track that Jay seemingly decides he isn't content to make a great album harking back to the days of his debut. "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is...)" is much more glossy than the preceding songs. "Sweet" shows signs of being a radio-friendly horn-based hip-hop track, and leads into the without a doubt radio-ready "I Know", which slows down to make way for the chill-out "Party Life". While all three are fine songs in themselves, they don't fit with the opening five numbers, and throw off the flow of the album. He opens the next track declaring "just the sound of this voice is a hit!" over a easy-going beat, before bizarrely entering a refrain that could never in a million years find its way to radio. An exerpt: "This is that ignorant shit you like. / Nigga fuck, shit, ass, bitch, trick, plus ice." The contradiction, in particular the vulgarity of the chorus, makes it hard to get into the song. However, it's followed by another great track, the aforementioned "Say Hello". Jay-Z recalls "Scarface" as he raps about being the bad guy, even though he came "up from the bottom" to become "mad fly". It's a testament to Jay-Z's talent that he's able to rap about such an over-used topic and still make it so interesting.

The next two tracks, "Success" and "Fallin'", are up to par with most of the album, even if they aren't exceptional. The album is improved by the inclusion of two bonus tracks following "Fallin'": "Blue Magic" and "American Gangster". "Blue Magic" is a banger, featuring contributions from Pharrell Williams and creative use of sound effects. It's arugably the best production on the album since the opening three numbers. "American Gangster" is lead by horns recalling "Encore" from "The Black Album" as Hova smoothly executes verses as soul vocals form behind him. He makes damn sure the album ends on a high note, as a majority of the lines relate to riches acquired and 'American Dreams' achieved.

As piano and violin lead to the denouement of the album, I didn't care that he only really applied half these songs to the concept behind the album. I didn't care that halfway through, he dropped a series of songs more related to "The Blueprint" than anything else on the album. Because I was just glad that he'd helped me forget about "Kingdome Come". I was glad I could appreciate this album for how good it was, rather than simply because it's Jay-Z coming out of a rut, like the vastly over-rated "The Black Album". All I cared about at that moment in time, was that I had just finished listening to his best album in almost a decade. The next moment, I was pressing play again.

Rating: 8.4

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