Review Summary: Here’s to the man that refused to give up. Here’s to hoping that he actually sounds like it next time.
If anything, it’s refreshing to see Jay-Z’s apparent formality. Sitting along side modern mainstream rappers like Soulja Boy and “Buy U A Drank” T-Pain, Jay-Z– presenting a cool, sleek exterior on an album titled American Gangster
(and not– and this is important– “gangsta”)– oddly inspired by a Denzel Washington film depicting the life of the 1970s hustler Frank Lucas, decided to create a concept album that channeled his early years as a young artist dealing drugs. The word “concept” is used loosely here: in an album that sets out to counterweight his supposed comeback album in Kingdom Come
, Jay-Z sticks a storyline onto already prevalent themes among hip-hop artist. But the “concept” here isn’t just to beef up already hardened topics. Jay-Z wears the word like an athletic supporter, toting it around like it strengthens American Gangster
, but really it half-heartedly fluffs an album already so half-ass
ed by the gangster himself.
For an album that stems from Jay-Z’s own passionate reaction to the Ridley Scott film, it lacks most of that same passion. It looks good on the page (and in the tabloids), but Jay-Z’s performance is so phoned in that his “reaction” might as well have been a contractual promise with Def Jam than an emotional response (and it might be, Jay-Z having already thrown around the prospect of releasing an album in conjunction with Scott’s film). It’s as if, somewhere between brunch and the afternoon football game, he saw an ad for the film, remembered his spiel, and recorded an album. It’s not immediately apparent, Denzel utilized for authenticity as a cameo sample on the album’s intro, which builds in intensity on what it means to be a gangster with gangster mentality. “If you believe in Jay-Z, you too can be a gangster” might come off processed, but it works in context of the 70s epic American Gangster
is played off as.
And 70s epic it is not, the album a consistently inconsistent transition from radio-ready singles to stripped beats. In one of the album’s strongest cuts, the strings fluid “Pray,” Jay-Z rides the blasts and appropriate background samples to whatever he’s rapping about (children giggling, tapes rewinding, police sirens) like a prologue montage to a story worth telling. It features the album’s catchiest sample (Hank Marvin’s “New Earth”) that complements the always-welcome Beyonce Knowles’ spurts of dialogue. It’s haphazardly followed up by the odd, lush piano styling of “American Dreamin’” that finds the falsetto singing clashing with Jay-Z's laidback rap. It’s the same performance that drags “No Hook” into a tedious spin of his metronome beat and basement rap storytelling. Instead of flowing into his produced music, Jay-Z drags his feet, like the ironically titled “Party Life” and grossly over calculated “Hello Brooklyn 2.0.”
Sounding like a poor man’s “Golddigger,” “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” finds Jay-Z at his most lazy, jaggedly rapping with Lil’ Wayne (who might go down as the year’s worst guest) professing a love for a woman named Brooklyn. It’s as subtle as this lyrical gem: “She told me she like my New Orleans demeanor and so I said, ‘Goodbye, Katrina.’” Still, too much of American Gangster
, however phoned in Jay-Z’s performance is, is too offhandedly fun and charming to completely write-off. “Sweet” locates the 70s jive the album was searching for, the grainy vinyl crackle a smooth crossover into the era, while “Roc Boys” juggles its horn section and Jay-Z’s flirtatious charm with the slightest of hand (“You don’t even gotta bring your purses out. We the dope boys of the year; drinks is on the house”). And in the lyrical aspect, Jay-Z finds a niche in bringing his past-spun story to the tone shifting American Gangster
. He might namedrop in awkward, self-referential passages (in “No Hook,” he states: “I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris. And Lude is my dude, I ain’t trying to diss”), but mostly he keeps a levelheaded, appropriately arrogant demeanor that recalls the era more than the ho-hum production.
In the sinisterly chipper, gospel styling of “Success,” Jay-Z proves to be as good as any storyteller to draw comparisons to Scott’s latest flick. The only problem is, Jay-Z lacks the conviction to do it in. When the natural flow of Nas’ rap elevates “Success” to one of American Gangster
’s best songs, you kind of wish Nas could have just had the same idea and done the album himself. It shadows the finale of the album, even the tight, appropriately grand title-track that finds Jay-Z at his breeziest. “I want the sky,” he raps, and it’s easy to believe him. He just obviously doesn’t want it bad enough. “They had Muhammad Hovi on the ropes, now I'm back in the go mode.” Too bad it took 15 tracks to get there.