Review Summary: Hova's back, and he's made one of the best albums of his career.
It seems too goddamn good to be true. Jay-Z, with his public popularity as low as George Bush’s, seems deflated after his supposed “comeback” album, Kingdom Come
, failed considerably both commercially-wise and, most noticeably, critically-wise. On a seemingly unrelated note, Ridley Scott’s new movie loosely documenting legendary gangster Frank Lucas, titled American Gangster
, is being filled to the brim with hype. Jay-Z, seeing an advance screening of the flick, was motivated. Weeks later, American Gangster
is announced for a November release, being a loose concept album documenting Jay-Z’s story if he’d never left the hustling and the drug trade. The album becomes as hyped as heavily as the movie it’s smartly attached to, and early reviews hype American Gangster
as Jay’s true comeback, a record that manages to hold its own against Jay’s other classics.
It really is a good story, and Jay-Z has no reason to be worried about the album’s commercial appeal. Even Kingdom Come
reached number one on the charts, and that album wasn’t attached to what may be the biggest film of the second half of the year. The concept manages to add extra buzz to the record: it makes what is usually just another hip-hop album more interesting, and there’s a large (and I mean large
) chance that American Gangster
could eclipse T.I. vs T.I.P
as the best hip-hop concept album released this year. But forget the story. Forget the hype. Forget the inevitable comeback. How’s the actual album?
It’s excellent, to be honest. Jay-Z sounds relaxed and comfortable in his legacy on the mic: he’s not feeling as pressed to perform as he did on Kingdom Come
, and the MC just lets his talent flow effortlessly. Production is more focused than Jay’s previous album as well: it’s lush and beautiful, large enough to seem coherent, but also managing to give plenty of room for Jay-Z to build wonders with his wordplay. He doesn’t exactly do that, but it’s obvious that Jay has rediscovered the main reason he’s considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Lyrically, American Gangster
may be the smartest album Jay has ever released: the MC maneuvers through as diverse subjects as the tricky subject of gang violence and the recent out breakout of criticism against rap after the Don Imus debacle. The real success here is that Jay attacks these subjects with a calm and collected manner, never rising with anger, choosing to weave his way through with puns and complicated rhymes to convey his message. Guest spots are also limited, with space being allowed for talented rappers Nas and Lil Wayne, and not so talented rappers, as shown with Pharrell. It’s a definite improvement over Kingdom Come
, which had a total of eight guest spots, and American Gangster
feels much more like Jay’s album.
Concept-wise, however, is where the album falters. American Gangster
simply doesn’t follow the story, as branches off with previously mentioned subjects such as the post-Imus uproar and adding party and diss tracks whenever the man ***ing feels like it. American Gangster
’s story is especially interrupted in the final two bonus tracks, “Blue Magic” and “American Gangster”. Despite being great, they focus more on Jay’s rapping brilliance than on an epic struggle of gangs and drugs. When American Gangster
does follow the story, it manages to seems much more like a coherent piece of work, but the actual concept doesn’t venture out into anything that hasn’t already been done: the battle for respect, the rise to glory, the blissful period of greatness, the inevitable downfall, and the epic comeback to a everlasting state of prosperity. In fact, the story basically follows Jay’s career as a rapper, with his basic message being that not a whole lot would change if Jay was still on the streets. Sure, it’s a half-baked concept, but with the actual songs being so damn good, it really doesn’t matter.
There are some obvious standouts. “Pray”, with its spoken-word hook and its rapid wordplay (“I’m selling coke/like Pepsi doesn’t matter), is a lush and epic way to begin the album, and “Ignorant ***”, with its stacked production of sitars, guitar-shredding keyboards, and all-encompassing soul samples, is both obscene and smart at the same time. Jay can still write great hooks, as he does with the catchy and memorable “Roc Boys (and the Winner Is…)”, even if he claims he doesn’t need them in “No Hooks”, and he really doesn’t to write a great song. But the surefire highlight is the raging “Success”, which has an organ riff that recalls classic records from the Motown era. The song serves as the triumphant climax of the story, being the true statement of…well…success
for Jay, proving that he has moved on from previous struggles and is ready to bask in the wake of all his hard work and determination. He even brings Nas along for the ride, showing that old wounds and worthless beefs are past him, and there’s no need for Jay to get into meaningless conflicts at such a point in his career.
It’s really hard to pinpoint negatives in this album. American Gangster
avoids all the obvious flaws in common, lesser hip-hop albums, such as worthless skits thrown in the middle of the record, and clocks in at a relatively lean fifty-nine minutes, which is a relief compared to hour-and-a-half borefests that the competition seems determined to spew out. There are of course some tracks that could be thrown out: American Gangster
is by no means a perfect album, and tracks such as “Fallin’” and “Sweet” fall short of the rest of the brilliance here. But these songs are by no means bad songs either, they just aren’t as instantly memorable as the other great tracks that crowds American Gangster
Yeah, the story here is half-baked, and connected in an equally half-baked way to a film that’s sure to be a box-office smash. But the cast is much better than the script here, and Jay-Z truly dominates an album in a way that brings teary-eyed nostalgic memories of The Blueprint
. Hova’s actually back, baby, and he’s got the epic storyline to go along with it. I’ll say it again: so what if the concept for American Gangster
is half-baked? If it results in a comeback like this, I say that more rappers should get inspiration through half-baked concepts connected to movies. Personally, I’m just awaiting LL Cool J’s tie-in to Fred Claus
+ Great lyrics and wordplay
+ Production is lush and beautiful
+ Guest spots are great and kept to a minimum
+ HOVA’S BACK, BABY!!!!!
- Story is sort of flimsy