Shawn Carter has done it again. After a mediocre and not-so-well recieved comeback album only a year earlier, Jay has returned with an album he says was inspired by the release of the film “American Gangster”, a film based on the life of notorious 70’s heroin kingpin – Frank Lucas. The album is described as Jay’s return to his hustling lure, and features production from the Neptunes, Diddy, and Jermaine Dupri among others, as well as guest spots from Nas, Beanie Sigel, and suprisingly Lil Wayne.
The album starts off with an exerpt from the film of the same name, followed by the true definition of a “gangster” over epic production. Although Jay doesn’t bless the mic on this one, it sets the album up properly.
This song starts off with a somber prayer, as a pounding instrumental can be heard building up in the background. From there Jay takes the oppurtunity to produce one of his best tracks in years. Jay’s hunger can be heard in the emotion of his vocals (“Hey young world, wanna hear a story?/Close your eyes, and you can pretend your me”). Fans of the ‘Blueprint’ and Jay’s best work will certainly enjoy this track. Perfect way to open up the album.
3.) American Dreamin’
Before the album’s release Jay mentioned a track featuring Marvin Gaye samples, and after hearing this track, it’s obvious this was the track he reffered to. Production is top notch on this track, as Marvin’s mellow chorus and Jay’s whisper-esque flow blend perfectly with the instrumental. Although not better than the previous track, this is clearly another one of the album’s highlights.
4.) Hello Brooklyn 2.0 feat. Lil Wayne
This is obviously one collaboration that most fans would’ve doubted would ever happen. After seemingly taking shots at each other for almost a year, President Carter called on rap’s hottest prospect (Lil Wayne) to bless a track dedicated to the home of Jay. Unlike “Renegade” or “Black Republicans”, this is more or less Jay and Wayne going back and forth giving props to Brooklyn, NY. Although production is shaky at times, and the repetitive screaming in the background can get annoying, this song has still surpassed the standards rap has set for today’s era. Decent song.
5.) No Hook
“I’m more of Frank Lucas than Ludacris” just about sums this track up. Over a very soulful sample, complete with a bass guitar built for this track, Jay takes it back to his hustling days. This song is very reminiscent of the 70’s era, as Jay dismisses the need for a hook as he takes you back to his time of hustlin caine in the Marcy Projects, while also sending a warning to any rapper trying to dethrone the King. Great track.
6.) Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)
Unlike ‘Kingdom Come’, this song (and most likely the album’s 2nd single) features Jay serving up a more polished flow, while at the same time declaring the rightful return of Rocafella Records. Diddy’s “feel good” production, combined with Jay’s apparent new found excitement for the game, make for another good track.
One of the reasons this album has managed to feel so live and fresh, is Jay’s decision to have a more live feeling by adding a live band. While production is very strong, the only fault of this track is that it does sound like Jay freestyled his entire verse. This combined with a hook less-than-great hook make for a mediocre song.
8.) I Know
Any fan of Jay-Z knows that some of his biggest commercial songs have come courtesy of The Neptunes. This track is no different, as Pharrell croons the hook in the smoothest manner possible, with Jay flowing perfectly over the Neptunes soothing production. This is one of the tracks on the album with a different feel, and easily outdoes any track on Jay’s previous album.
9.) Party Life
Production is very mellowed out, as Jay gets punchline happy, with smooth singing in the background. While detailing how he’s so ‘off the wall’ he might as well be a young Michael Jackson, Jay calms down for this track; which proves to be a good breaking point in the album. Good song.
10.) Ignorant Shit feat. Beanie Sigel
The return of two of the Roc’s premier members over a soulful sample (also used for Jim Jones’ “Summer In Miami”) sounds like a perfect combination…and ends up being just that. After addressing those doubting his thought provoking songs, Jay sarcastically gives the people “the ignorant shit you like”, by taking jabs at how simple and self absorbed hip hop has come to be.
11.) Say Hello
Taking a page from Scarface, this is Jay over more mellow production. Unfortunately, he seems a little lazy not only with the hook, but with his verses as well. Production is the highlight of this track, as Jay tries explain how he is no “ordinary nigga” even before he was known as Jigga, but ultimatley fails in making this song the classic it had the potential to be.
12.) Success feat. Nas
After their critically acclaimed collaboration “Black Republicans” on Nas’s ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ last year, The God MC & Nastradamus return for “Success”. Over a pounding organ influenced production, Jay sets off the track with a strong display of lyricism (“I used to give a *****, now I give a ***** less/What do I think of success?, it sucks, too much stress”), and continues an amazing display of charisma, before passing the track to Nas, who sounds as hungry as he did on previous classics. After famously deading their beef two years ago, it’s becoming apparent that the co-K.O.N.Y.’s sound so much better on a track, than they do going at each other on a track. Classic song.
This track is without a doubt the best song on the album. Everything from production (courtesy of Jermaine Dupri), to subject matter, and finally lyricism is shown. Jay details the struggle of the game (in a mode very reminscent of “Reasonable Doubt”), and sounds just as hungry as he did 10 years ago with such clever wordplay:
“…talking tough on the youtube, bout what you used to do
but’s that oldschool to the new crew, they doin numbers like Seduku”
14.) American Gangster
Much like last year’s “Show Me What You Got”, this is uptempo production courtesy of longtime collaborator Just Blaze. However unlike “Show Me What You Got”, this track is more of Jay in his true element. Describing how he is the ultimate ‘American Gangster’, this track has a very 70’s blaxploitation feel. Discussing the breakup of the Roc, and the rumors of an illegitimate child, all while maintaining a perfected flow, Jay takes this track where no other artist could making for another classic track.
15.) Blue Magic
Although Jay himself stated that this was a conceptual album, this track (and also the album’s first single) has a very different feel from the rest of the disc. The beat is not one of the Neptunes best, and although Jay manages to provide some quotables (“Niggas wanna bring the 80’s back/That’s okay with me, that’s where they made me at”), the song as a whole doesn’t blend well with the rest of the production and theme.
So after a dissapointing comeback album in”Kingdom Come”, it appears Jay has found the motivation he needed to produce the soon-to-be classic (even if it was inspired by a Denzel Washington film) “American Gangster.” This album should disregard any doubt that Jay still has the ability to make good records, while showcasing his hustler mentality over soulful instrumentals (credit Jermaine Dupri, Diddy, Just Blaze, and Bigg D). Although not on the level of “Blueprint” or “Reasonable Doubt”, this will still remain as one of Jay’s better albums.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5