Pros: Movie tie-in gives Jay-Z excuse to rap about drug dealing again.
Cons: Lyrical versatility he tried for on Kingdome Come is out the window.
Bottom Line: Proves Jay-Z hasn't lost his fastball after widely-panned comeback.
Boil down nine albums’ worth of lyrics and Jay-Z’s career can be summarized in one line: “I sold kilos of coke, so I’m guessing I can sell CDs.” The Armani suits and corporate image gloss over the fact that today’s more violent “hustler/rappers” (50 Cent, Jeezy) merely take his blueprint to its logical conclusion.
He attempted to distance himself from that persona on last year’s comeback album Kingdom Come, only to be met with critical derision and lackluster sales.
So American Gangster is an almost spiteful return to his roots: “Y’all got me really confused out there. I make Big Pimpin … you hail me as the greatest writer of the 21st century. I make some thought-provoking (stuff), you say I fallen off. I’m going to really confuse y’all on this one.”
The more commercial stylings of Kingdom Come are absent. Instead it’s the type of old-school East Coast rap album rarely seen anymore — soul samples on top of hard-hitting bass and dramatic instrumentation. Diddy even brings back the Hitmen (the production team for many of Bad Boy’s early hits) for five songs.
While lines of movie dialogue are occasionally interspersed, American Gangster is really a Jay-Z album with some Frank Lucas packaging. He uses the concept to embrace his inner “bad guy” and vividly detail the rise and fall of a hustler: from the bottom (American Dreamin) to the top (Party Life) and back again (Fallin).
Yet even as he mesmerizes with stories from a life he left a lifetime ago, he can’t resist noting the absurdity of it all: “Don’t fear no rappers / They’re all weirdos, DeNiros and actors / So don’t believe everything your earlobe captures / None of what you hear, even if it’s spat by me / and with that said, I will kill (expletive) dead.” It’s his true genius: in a game where authenticity is everything, he’s made a career out of acting.