Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jay-Z "American Gangster"

After much procrastination I decided it was time to stop and get this review done. It is almost February after all and I have the next artist already picked out to receive my dissection (even if I did loose all their music this week, damn hard drives!). You're just gonna have to wait for that (don't spoil it for 'em Caroline!) - right now it's time for American Gangster, the last studio album we have received from Jigga.

After watching the Denzel epic of the same name about Frank Lucas' rise to power in New York, Shawn Carter hit the lab with Puffy's latest incarnation of the hitmen LV & Sean C and banged out one of his most impressive works, albeit a step in the wrong direction for the man who will one day be viewed as the first to deliver a true grown man rap album.

Not that I don't blame him, while critics tended to enjoy Kingdom Come his fans (this one included, at the time) were filled with rage due to his choice to talk about his current life instead of the street life he had forever immortalized on wax. Here was his chance to literally step into character and give those fans what they know and love him for.

While Jay wasn't probably on the level that Mr. Lucas made it to during his run on the street, Jay-Z is a venerable Frank Lucas of the music industry and from the opening of this opus it is this street smart aesthetic that carries the album into our CD player (that's what I'm fucking with these days, forget an iPod) for multiple spins.

Over the course of his albums and my reviewing of them I've been forced to thoroughly listen to the verses delivered. This was partly due to the age of some of the records, but by and large the lyrics were always in the background to me. Sure I caught lines here and there but I was never one to rewind a Jay-Z tape. That changed when this album dropped.

Maybe it was thanks to popping mushrooms and holding the gate fold LP in my hands reading the lyrics, but from my first listen of American Gangster I was blown away by the imagery painted by Jay here. Yes the content isn't socially redeeming, but it's not demoralizing either. There is an arch to this record that helps tie it all together. While it was intended to be viewed as a concept record I can't go so far as to say this is on the level of something Prince Paul would deliver, but it does tell a story – and it's a story we should all heed, whether we are involved in the street life, business life, or our own life (whatever that may be).

Taking us from the pinnacle of success by illegal means to the often violent downfall American Gangster is a journey through the mind of one who has seen it all to some extent. His success may have come from the streets but just like we see on “Fallin” Jay knows how you go down in that arena and he wasn't looking to make that sacrifice. Instead he took his skills to the stage and has become one of the most celebrated individuals of the past decade.

In that time he has proven to have an ear for great beats and a mind that will create vivid displays of poetic creation. Stepping away from his stand by team of Just Blaze and Kanye West, Diddy delivered a batch of soul drenched instrumentals from the steady grinding team of LV & Sean C to great results. They chop up the classics from Curtis to Marvin, Barry White to the Dramatics and cement the Daptone movement by flipping The Menahan Street Band's amazing “Make the Road By Walking” like it was a dusty 45 dug up from forty years ago, even though only dropping in 2006.

Of course he can't abandoned those that have helped him get to where he is at completely, with Just delivering the excellent “Ignorant Shit” with a great sounding Beans – these two compliment each other perfectly! Pharrel and his Neptune partner lace “I Know” with their typical happy club sound and proves to be the prefect canvas for Jay-Z to play with words and describe the ills of addiction through a metaphor that will guarantee you to crack a smile.

Much was made of the appearance from Wayne here and given that it takes place over the weakest beat on the album (perhaps one of the worst of Jay's career) not much can be said. They both sound good and Wayne holds his own, it's going to be a long road for him to be at Jay's level though.

Awhile ago I referred to American Gangster as sounding “tired.” While that could have had as much to do with my own lack of enjoyment being found with in rap lately, for all it's greatness this album does feel like it's missing something.

“Like what,” you ask?

Does it have great beats? Yes. Dope rhymes? Yes.

But it isn't Jay-Z anymore. Regardless of his attempt to create a concept record inspired by his life and a movie about a true OG the life this record emphasizes isn't in him anymore and that lack of passion is omnipresent throughout. You can almost feel his desire to appease the fans. Where is that pain from “Lost Ones?” Where is the honesty that makes Kingdom Come and all your best albums? You made Reasonable Doubt, you don't owe us anything when it comes to the street tales.

Maybe Blueprint 3 will deliver the soul again?

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