Monday, November 5, 2007

Jay-Z: American Exec...I Mean Gangster

Sorry, I haven't written anything in like three weeks. I've been busy, uh, fighting crime. OK, so that's about as believable as, well, Jay-Z holding any "gangster" credibility in 2007. Yeah, American Gangster finds Jigga sticking to the strengths abandoned on the pathetic Kingdom Come, but calling Gangster a true street record is like moving from Bill O'Reilly to Fred Thompson and calling Thompson a leftist. Even on Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z's style and charisma seemed built for the mainstream, and any underground impulses he may have once had are long gone.

Even if Jay-Z genuinely wished to return to his "roots," any hope he had he destroyed by having Diddy and co. handle the boards half the time. Diddy's production actually doesn't crash and burn; it even excels on horn-driven single "ROC Boys." Jay-Z feels at home on the clean, radio beats, while sounding almost silly when trying to work Bigg D's grittier underground sound with Lil Wayne on "Brooklyn 2.0." Like Kanye West with his Graduation failure "Barry Bonds," here the Lil Wayne collaboration exposes the colossal gap between Jay-Z and the streets he once ran.
(Leave it to fuckin Lil Wayne to try to fuck up the two most anticipated hip-hop records of the year).

This gap isn't a problem though. American Gangster is miles above Kingdome Come, even if doesn't come close to the big three. Shawn Carter got his swagger back, and the production here matches him step for step (save for the aforementioned "Brooklyn 2.0" and slightly flat "Sweet"). The Neptunes provide two gems, borrowing from their own Hell Hath No Fury- playbook on "Blue Magic" and offering a super catchy synth line and flashy bells on the absurdly infectious "I Know." Jermaine Dupri and K West protege No ID lay down the final two tracks, including the wonderful Nas collab "Success."

That being said, Gangster isn't a complete return to form, since it does not land the home-run tracks that fueled The Black Album. A long career and a three-year layoff has permanently dimished the brilliance of Jay-Z's flow, as nothing here matches the ill rhyme scheme on "99 Problems" or "What More Can I Say." Further, Diddy never lays down anything close to "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," and it would have been nice to hear a Kanye track at one point or another.

Of course, Jay-Z still undeniably regains his footing on Gangster, offering the wit, clever wordplay, and enthusiasm that made his earlier work so remarkable. The man is the best rapper who ever lived, so could really have expected back-to-back failures? Of course not. American Gangster may even upstage Graduation as the hip-hop record of the year on end-of-year lists. It sure as hell deserves to.

He don't need no hook for this shit, but he got em anyway:
Jay-Z (featuring Pharrell)- I Know
Jay-Z- ROC Boys (And the Winner Is)

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