Ever since Jay-Z made his not-much-of-a-comeback with Kingdom Come naysayers have lashed out on his depleted skills and tired subject matter. More than a dozen albums deep Jay has yet to return to the level of street-smarts and high-life elegance of his debut, Reasonable Doubt â then again not many have.
Unfairly written off as a Biggie clone, J-Hovaâs endless output has marked him a quantity artist rather than quality. Inspiration in hip-hop today is thin on the ground; for that reason Jay has turned to film for inspiration – a Denzel Washington-starring mafia film based on a true story.
Art imitates life this time around.
With his catalog previously ending on an awkward, lopsided note Jay-Z delivers a quality, low-key release with American Gangster, an album that may end up being shoulder-to-shoulder with The Black Album as latter-day Jay’s finest.
After an unremarkable intro the first two tracks on American Gangster roll up slow and unassuming, donning the ornate, synth-string production made famous by Diddy’s team The Hitmen, who have worked with Hova since his first official hello to the industry, “Canât Knock the Hustle.” Both “Pray” and “American Dreamin'” are far more pensive than his usual braggadocio tracks, with lamentations on rising above gutter mentality to spin platinum records and rims alike. Itâs nothing groundbreaking, but far more listenable than what’s to follow.
“Hello Brooklyn (2.0)” is hot garbage, full of lifeless “urban radio” pandering and twice-baked jingle-pop hookery, not to mention the appearance of rap music’s number one who-decided-heâs-a-quality-MC, Lil’ Wayne. Riding a boring 808 beat into the sunset with a despicable rapper from the South is hardly a way to give Brooklyn props â check Digable Planet’s âBorough Checkâ? to see how itâs supposed to done, Hov.
Conceptually, American Gangster delivers better than expected, with Jay’s strong narratives anchoring down even the flimsiest of beatwork. “No Hook,” “Say Hello” and “Success” together reaffirm what everybody should know: Jay-Z is still one of the most impressive rappers in the industry, backpackers be damned. He knows his strengths, never venturing far from his the mafioso roots that jump-started his career over a decade ago.
With that said, a little variety would go a long way on American Gangster. Proving himself more-than-capable of handling topical issues it seems that Jay is unfortunately too interested in keeping his legacy alive than gamble his credibility. That in itself is perplexing: aren’t mafioso-types inclined to gambling, inclined to go double-or-nothing in the name of excitement?
But I digress. American Gangster is only a slight dissapointment when dreaming up What Could Have Been. If Jay-Z is to remain typical, there’s always next year for him to prove himself a risk-taker.