Friday, November 2, 2007
Jay-Z - American Gangster: Review
Sometimes it’s better to wait a few days and take a second listen to a record before you give your opinion on the subject? Often, a record that you thought was weak can grow on you and you can find the nuances in the record that you didn’t hear the first time around. Or you can find that record that you loved the first time around actually ain’t that special at all and you wished you could take away what you said in the first place. Since I started writing my reviews for this “not-a-blog” I have found that I’ve soured slightly on Kanye’s and Chamillionaire’s records and Getback has only improved since I wrote the review. Its inevitable. It happens and luckily thanks to the magic of the internet if I really wanted to I could either change the review or make it disappear and pretend it never happened like it was “Braveheart Party” or something.
I’ve been sitting on my American Gangster review for about a week now since I officially heard the “retail” version of the record on about Monday night or so. Unlike my other reviews, I have heard this record numerous and numerous times, front to back, mulled it over, and now I’m ready to offer my opinion to world and to my legions (and legions) of my hungering, internet stans. Ok, so yeah, I’ll admit it, it’s pretty good but not for the reasons that you might think.
I must admit, I didn’t want to like this record. It’s not because I am some lunatic Nas stan who refuses to acknowledge Jay’s greatness or because I have a devoted Jay-Z hater all my life or I because I’m Byron Crawford and hate everything. Quite the contrary, I have been a pretty devoted Jay-Z fan all my life. I have warm, vivid feelings of riding the school bus with my soccer team and listening to “Hard Knock Life” over the radio. I’ve been a fan. I just don’t think he’s anywhere close to the greatest of all-time. He’s good but not as good as Elliot “I Like To Pretend I’m Responsible For Jay’s Success Because He Appeared On The First XXL mag cover” Wilson or MTV would like you to believe. I didn’t want to like this record because I kind of resent the fact that Jay-Z ruined his legacy with that middling and completely pointless “comeback” record Kingdom Come last year after he made such a triumphant exit a few years back with The Black Album. The way that Kingdom Come sounded so rushed and forced made it seem only like it compounded on the notion that the retirement theme of The Black Album was a completely artificial and forced concept designed to sell records. The way that record was promoted as the triumphant return of a heroic legend to save rap from its death throws made it worse because when it turned out that Kingdom Come was a giant “shit sandwich” (Not my words. Word to Bol) because everything about the record screamed 4th Quarter throwaway record designed to artificially inflate Jay’s numbers as President of Def Jam when the time came to renegotiate Jay’s contract at Universal. Kingdom Come was actually kind of notable for the fact that it somehow managed to not only be a bad record but it retroactively ruined a record that prior to its existence was damn near classic itself. Kudos, Jay-z! We all appreciated that. So getting back to the subject when Jay announced American Gangster last month of the blue, I was immediately prepped to hate this record with a passion. It seemed obvious to me (and to nobody else) that Jay was gonna make a pandering crack rap record to counter the stupid idea that Kingdom Come was a bad record because he wasn’t rapping about selling crack. As if... And I was more than annoyed by the band wagon nut hugging of this record by Elliot Wilson (whose such a Jay-Z stan it makes Jay’s own obsession with Nas look positively healthy) and his ilk than anything.
The first time I listened to American Gangster, it kind of confirmed my thoughts. I was kind of annoyed by the fact that Jay decided to make a Jeezy record with a lot more ‘70s soul horns instead of Shawty Redd synths if with only a slight more lyrical nuance but not that much. I was annoyed with the fact that he decided he needed to ruin the original “Ignorant Shit” with a completely superfluous Beanie Sigel verse and a god awful final verse. And more than anything, I thought the idea of damn near 40 year old uber-rich record executive decided he needed to bite a damn near 11 year old record because people didn’t appreciate the fact that he made a record about being a damn near 40 ear old uber-rich record executive. Just take the L, homie, go fuck Beyonce (or possibly Larry Johnson or even Bleek if you really feel like it), and keep moving into the sunset which you just should’ve done in the first place.
However, because of my laziness on my part to write the review, I listened to the record a couple of times more and a funny thing happened. I was listening to “Ignorant Shit” for the umpteenth time and the record suddenly clicked for me. Jay-Z wasn’t making a crack rap record because he didn’t want to seem like an uncool old man but because he wanted to craft an artistic “Fuck You” to the legions of fans who shunned him after Kingdom Come because he wasn’t rapping about being a gangster or the growing legions of hip hop haters who foolishly blame hip hop for everything that is evil with the world. Much like last year’s Fishscale, the goal of American Gangster isn’t so much to make a crack rap record because its the cool thing to do but to prove to his peers and fans that you are biting Jay’s style wholesale and he can still rap circles around you clowns. The presence of “Ignorant Shit” on the album seems puzzling to a lot of people since that song was originally designed for The Black Album in 2003 and has been making its rounds around the mixtape scene for years now but that song is really key to the whole album. It’s the point where the basic theme of the album completely shifts. It stops being about the completely superfluous tacked on idea that this Jay’s tribute to the Ridley Scott movie but actually a comment about rap music fandom and society itself. Its been commented on numerous forums that hip hop fans have been screaming for more balance in the music for years but the fact, that the most ignorant and generic gangsta rap music has consistently proven to be the highest selling subgenre of hip hop has kind of negated that point of view. Gangsta rap’s dominance of hip hop has lead to its stereotyping in the media that gangsta rap is what hip hop is only about which, of course, allows assholes like Don Imus to transfer the blame for their own sins onto hip hop as a proxy. Jay’s point which is, of course, obvious to everybody paying attention is that “ignorant shit” (n****, fuck, shit, ass, bitch, trick plus ice) is the shit that we like and hip hop’s preoccupation on the subject is due to the fact it sells. Simple as that. No apologies for it. It’s kind of refreshing for an artist to be that blunt about it and not side step it. In a lot of ways, American Gangster is Jay’s answer to Nas’ Hip Hop Is Dead or De La Soul’s Stakes Is High.
As for the actual music on the record, I’ve got to say the production sounds amazing. The music is the heir to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly or Willie Hutch’s The Mack both stylistically and thematically in the sense that the production borrows heavily from 70s era blaxploitation soundtracks. Lots of horns, lots of strings, lots of upbeat tempos, the requisite slow love records, and of course, the ubiquitous “I’m sorry I sold crack” record. There are a lot of great songs so I’ll let you explore the record on their own to find your favorites but some of mine included “Fallin”, “No Hook” and the hyped Nas collaboration “Success.” The record isn’t without flaws though. Jay-Z still isn’t quite the rapper that he used to be. He’s improved since the last album but he’s still not kicking anything as he good as he did on Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint.
Overall, I think American Gangster will end up being one of Hov’s stronger records. I’m not sure if I would rank it up over The Black Album but its eons above Blueprint 2 or Vol. 1. The question remains though, what’s really next for Jay-Z. The one aspect that bothers a lot of his fellow rappers especially his ‘90s peers on Def Jam is that Jay-Z seems to have a pathological need for attention and desire to be admired above all else and he is only willing to promote himself. Does Jay-Z really need to rap, anymore? If Jay is gonna continue to rap about his days as “gangster” than eventually is he gonna turn into a hallow shell of himself like 50 Cent or Eminem who ran out of good ideas and just continued on until they became self-parody. I would hate to see Jay-Z making something as pandering as Curtis and becomes a shell of himself. Perhaps, after this last great triumph, Jay-Z needs to fade into the shadows and retire. At least, for awhile... You’ve earned it, big guy.