Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘Gangster’ anything but

At the risk of spoiling this review within the first
sentence, let me just say that expectations can be fickle, funny things. For
months, the Internet has been abuzz over how Jay-Z crafted his ninth solo
album, American Gangster, to combine
the snarling attitude and wit of his 1996 groundbreaker Reasonable Doubt, with the Kanye West/Just Blaze-style histrionics
of 2000's universally acclaimed The
Blueprint. The desired result: an inherently street album from the veteran
perspective of Mr. "30 is the New 20."

Yet a lot has changed in the seven years since The Blueprint helped spawn popular rap's
modern sound: exit Damon Dash, enter Jason Kidd and Beyonce. A beef with Nas
became a sudden and unfortunate partnership with Nas. A series of
retirement/unretirement albums was produced — with very mixed results. And now,
for whatever reason, the new Denzel and Russell Crowe movie has inspired Jay-Z
to attempt to marry his two most beloved sounds.

Still, his goal is both logical and noble. 2006's Kingdom Come was panned by most, and who
wants to end their career on that note, particularly an emcee who proclaims
himself the greatest ever? The solution: more Puff Daddy. Diddy and his
production team, the Hitmen, handle six of American
Gangster's tracks, hoping to rekindle the magic they shared with Hov on the
100-time platinum Vol. 2… Hard Knock


"Pray," their first collaboration on the album is undeniably
intense, but its echo-laden shout is equally overwhelming, especially
considering how noticeably weak Jigga's cadence is now versus the mid-90s. The
following track, "American Dreamin'," has genuine bounce and successfully pairs
him with a soulful Marvin Gaye sample. The beat on "Party Life," though, complements
Jay-Z's style well, but the song runs about a minute too long. Another of their
collaborations, "Roc Boys (And the Winner is…)," also exploits the fact that
Jay has always sounded great over horns, and its celebratory vibe stands out
when he starts tossing around "L'chaim" in a verse.

One of American
Gangster's most notable flaws is apparent right away, and that's the album's
trite lyrics.

It was one thing for Jay-Z to boast about slinging rock and
toting pistols in 1996 as a relative unknown, but it's pretty dubious when Def
Jam's present-day CEO still claims to live in such a manner. And credibility
aside, there's simply been too much good crime-oriented hip-hop over the years
for Jay to get away with lazy metaphors and half-assed dope boy nostalgia.
Describing yourself as "Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey with the pies," on
the otherwise not-that-bad first single "Blue Magic" just doesn't hit as hard
as the Clipse's similar claim of being the "black Martha Stewart." Unfortunately,
this sort of hollow drug talk plagues American
Gangster throughout the album.

It would be remiss to not mention "Ignorant Shit," the
album's best offering. Producer Just Blaze provides a bouncy, "Miami Vice"
vibe, even while flipping one of rap's most exhausted samples. If not for the
song's subject matter, it could genuinely blow up as a single. "Fallin'" is
overly dependent on its dorky sample, but Jay turns in one of his better
rapping performances of American Gangster.
Of the two anticipated duets on the album, "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" with Lil Wayne
is decent if not grating, and "Success" with Nas falls flat thanks to its "Takeover"-sound-a-like
beat and Nas' severely uninspired verse.

Conceptually, American
Gangster, an album that is both evocative and dark in tone, was intended to
be a companion to the film. Instead, it is the same type of Jay-Z album we've
heard since The Blueprint, but with
increasingly disingenuous crime talk and even less energy on the mic. There are
several definite bangers ("Ignorant Shit" and "No Hook"), and the average
modern rap fan will appreciate the omnipresent grandiose production, but given
the expectations, American Gangster
is an unrealized vision, hampered by uncreative lyricism and average emceeing.

2.5 stars out of 5

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