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Jay-Z - American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

A Gangster and a Gentleman

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Jay-Z - American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

Jay-Z has been slinging heroin-laced rhymes since '96, so what makes American Gangster, the musical companion piece to Ridley Scott's drug tale of the same name, any different? More importantly, why is this album such an epochal event to everyone, including the Jiggaman himself?

Besides the obvious fact that his music is as addictive as the substance he rhymes about, everything from pulling the album off iTunes to handing out lyric sheets to critics shows how much this album means to Jay. Here's an artist who, though well established as an epitome of success, is still concerned with how his art is consumed.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

We're told that Jay-Z saw an early screening of the film and was reminded of his own grimy past. Thus, a concept album was born. The CD revolves around a central character -- a cross between Frank Lucas and Young Shawn Carter. It's worth noting that Jay made sure to draw a distinction between his real life outcome and Lucas' to avoid any misconceptions. "Please don’t compare me to other rappers," he quips on "No Hook", "Compare me to trappers. I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris. And Luda's my dude, I ain’t trying to dis. Like Frank Lucas is cool, but I ain’t tryin’ to snitch," to which Lucas angrily replied "Please tell Mr. Jay-Z to watch his mouth."

The Good, The Bad, The Gangsta

The album mirrors the movie closely. Jay attempts to replicate specific scenes, while peppering his narratives with Denzel Washington(he plays Frank Lucas) soundbites. Jigga perfectly captures the movie's melodramatic vibe and emotion as well.

Like a well-scripted epic, Jay's interpretation of American Gangster follows a logical trajectory. The celebratory "Roc Boys," with its triumphant horns captures the glitz and glam that accompany success. Nas assists with "Success," in which both rappers rhyme about the gift and the curse of being on top. Jay boasts, "I got watches I ain’t seen in months, apartment in the Trump I only slept in once." Nas brags, "Old cribs I sold y’all drive by like monuments/ Google-Earth Nas, I got flats in other continents."

The measured braggadocio continue on "I know" and "Party Life." The latter a faux-seduction groove, laced over sultry vocals and smooth guitar riffs.

All good things, they say, must come to an end. So, typically, the young hustler falls to grace at the end of the album. "Fallin'" the album's dramatic climax, finds Jermaine Dupri (surprisingly) supplying a waterfall of crashing strings and surging keys, while Jay highlights the dichotomies of drug abuse: "The irony of selling drugs is sorta like you’re using it/ Guess there’s two sides to what substance abuse is."

Musically Explosive

Just like the lyrics are patterned like scenes from the movie, American Gangster is also a musical reflection of the 70s era. Lush soul samples lay the backdrop for Jay's recitals. The ghost of Marvin Gaye's classic "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" provides a smooth soundbed for "American Dreamin'"; Beefy organ loops from The Isley Brother's "Between the Sheets" help shape "Ignorant "Sh*t". Fortunately, Diddy and his reunited Hitmen crew keep American Gangster musically rich with live instrumentation cinematic grooves. DJ Toomp turns in a memorable effort on the "Say Hello," which borrows from Tom Brock's "The Love We Share is the Greatest of Them All."

The Bottom Line on American Gangster

Thanks to the potent tracks and instrumentally dense production, American Gangster ranks among Jay's top 5 albums. But it's hardly perfect. You'll have to weave through two introductory tracks, marred by corny spoken-word vocals, to get to the first great record. Then, it immediately plunders tail-first into mediocrity with the next song, a badly placed Lil' Wayne collaboration dubbed "Hello Brooklyn 2.0." Weezy's off-kilter crooning leaves nothing be desired, and the song sticks out like a sore thumb.

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