There I was standing in the record store, trying to force myself to buy Sigur Ros’ just released album – knowing full well that it’d probably sound exactly like all their other stuff – when I spotted Jay-Z’s brand new album, American Gangster. For the first year since I’m 13 I’ve bought less than 10 hip-hop albums in a 12-month span; it’s not that I don’t keep an eye out for what’s going on, I just very rarely like what I hear anymore from the genre, be it commercial or underground. Seeing Jay-Z so shamelessly ape director Ridley Scott’s fine film about the collaboration between real-life gangster Frank Lucas and police officer Richie Roberts that brought down over 100 drug-related criminals (including a good number of police officers) seemed a bit baffling to me, baffling enough to warrant a purchase. Why – I asked myself as I picked up the disc in the store – would Jay-Z, a rapper known for glorifying “the drug game,” celebrate an individual who ratted out so many people in “the game”? I had to find out.
Unfortunately, there aren’t really any deep hidden meanings in Gangster’s lyrics, Jay simply saw an early cut of the film a weeks before it was set to hit theaters and all but ran to the studio to cash in on the obvious themes (read: power, drugs, violence, respect and an overall macho vibe) of the topical film. When Jay’s classic debut, Reasonable Doubt, was released he boasted a fresh mix of artistic and business instincts; not anymore. Jay is now much more of a businessman. When he heard talk of a film that played through like “The Black Scarface,” he knew he had to watch it as soon as possible, secure the rights to name his album after it (as well as a slew of dialogue samples) and called up all his producer friends. This, dear readers, is a surefire way to beat the “fallen hero” blues that came with his lousy previous studio album, Kingdom Come, which was supposed to be his comeback album.
American Gangster, despite its instantly cheap history and phoned in motives, is Jay’s proper return to form. Though the album features loads of guests (his girlfriend, Beyonce, gets the first proper vocals on the album) and played-out production, most of the songs roll easy down the hatch, some even prompting use of the “repeat” button. That said, American Gangster employs nearly every cliché Jay’s lesser peers have been employing over the last few years: pointless guest appearances; an intro worth listening to exactly once; inconsistent production spread out over a slew of different producers with different sounds; needless use of the words “bonus tracks” listed before the album’s last two tracks (as if those two songs aren’t everywhere); and, amongst a million other things, Scarface-inspired moodiness. I like Scarface, too, but c’mon! Brian DePalma’s 1983 Al Pacino vehicle has become more influential to the rap genre than Marley Marl in the last decade!
Since American Gangster was produced, written and put together so quickly, Jay didn’t have the usual grace period needed to focus on writing hook-heavy songs with compromised pop lyrics. Instead, we get a more natural Jay, one that is still very generic in subject matter and style, but also better than almost anyone else that does what he does in natural ability. Songs like “No Hook,” “Fallin,” “Sweet” and “Say Hello” bring to mind both the soulful moments of The Blueprint and the lyrically spontaneous highlights of Reasonable Doubt. Unfortunately, American Gangster just can’t stand next to those two classic albums, though it is tempting to call it Jay’s proper return to form, even if it is by way of regression. Jay’s tenth proper studio album is cocky, catchy, quotable and – if you prefer to wear clothing decorated with airbrushed images from Scarface – a new “gangster rap” classic; just don’t expect it to reach the highs of the excellent film that supposedly inspired it.