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Retro Review: American Gangster

August 2, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The biggest name in hip-hop, one album into his return from retirement, makes a concept album synthesizing his biography with the Ridley Scott movie.

Fun Facts

  • This is Jay-Z’s only “concept album.” It has a rise-and-fall story that compares the ol’ Goodfellas/Scarface trope with the limited shelf life of the pop musician. Given some of the Kingdom Come reviews, it’s understandable why Mr. Carter would be thinking of his commercial and/or critical mortality.
  • Consequently, it is also Jay-Z’s only album that he is not selling on ITunes (he is selling it on Amazon though). He wants the listener to hear the record from start to finish, just like AC/DC!
  • This is the second Jay-Z album to be released with an acapella version. Remember how many crummy “concept” The Black Album mashup albums came out 6 years ago trying to be Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album? Even I tried my hand at one back in 2005.
  • Finally, the intro features King Driis himself, Idris Elba. At the time, he was best known in the States for his role on The Wire, but he booms over Chris Flame’s atmospherics in his native Hackney accent. Damn he can do a voiceover!

Ups

  • Hate on Diddy and his antics all you want, but the man knows his way around a high profile sample and a cinematic sound. “Pray” stomps with swagger and symphonic pomp and the guitars rage just enough to be badass. “No Hook” feels like a ganglord pontificating over his empire when Jay-Z flows over the slow burn music. Heck, even the Marvin Gaye sample on “American Dreamin’,” enhances the song’s wistful/wishful tone.
  • You can always count on the Neptunes to make some good beats. “I Know” has this peppy bounce to it, and Pharrell’s chorus is nothing if not infectious. Later on, “Blue Magic” features some cool minimal organ backing and some early 90s, 2 Unlimited-esque keyboard stabs and manages to hold the whole thing together.
  • Two words: Just Blaze! Though he chips in only one track, “Ignorant Shit,” the music is some of the catchiest modern disco this side of the Freemasons.
  • Though he has the gall to wrap up his biography with a big-budget crime drama given all of the legitimate money he has earned over his nearly 20 year music career, at least Jay-Z has the humility to end the main part of the album with the gangster’s fall and the rapper’s irrelevance on “Fallin’.” It speaks to his self-awareness.

Downs

  • I fell asleep listening to some parts of the album. “Sweet’s” hazy 70’s ambience and minimal beats had me struggling to stay focused. “Say Hello” runs too slow for its own good. Even Jay-Z sounds like he is yawning his way through the verses on that song.
  • Sometimes the good parts just don’t come together: “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” features a Lil Wayne guest verse and a very, very dirty beat, but unless you’re a native New Yorker, there’s not much to really draw you in lyric-wise.
  • Beanie Sigel’s turn on “Ignorant Shit” is reminder that while Jay-Z is one of the most successful rappers of all time and he helped break both Kanye West and Just Blaze, he has never found a good protégé: Memphis Bleek, Foxy Brown, Tierra Marie, Young Gunz, and yes, Beanie Sigel. Does he make a bad label manager, a guy who picks talent to make himself look better by comparison, or just a guy who wants to give the people he cares about breaks?
  • Finally, the spoken-word outro from Beyonce starts to sound eerily like she’s preaching the church of Hov. Maybe she’s just going all “Jesus Walks,” but I call it like I hear it.

Conclusion: I find it ironic that Jay-Z would think of this record as a conceptual whole when execution-wise it is so hit-and-miss. Maybe if he got one, two producers to do the whole album, or punched up some of the downtempo tracks with DJ Shadow, RJD2, or Eminem, then we’d have a better overall album. Nevertheless, this is good for maybe 8-10 tracks if you’re feeling generous. Good thing you can buy the individual mp3s!

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One comment

  1. […] of her least her pop career) and flinching. It’s a small sign of growing up (or the fear of it). I gave Jay-Z props for expressing this sentiment, and I’ll give Katy the same credit. It’s just a sentiment that […]



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