"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon


Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Case For Ghost As G.O.A.T./Ghostface Killah - The Big Doe Rehab: Review

The Cover's Nuts, Too.
When No Trivia’s Brandon Soderberg dropped his monster post, “Reconsidering The Rap Canon”, earlier this year, he stressed the importance of keeping the so-called “canon” of hip hop - the limited and accepted number of classic albums and great rappers that all others are judged by - nebulous and open to change and debate. Although I am far from being a legitimate cultural gatekeeper due to my race, age and class in relation with the overwhelming majority of hip hop’s creators, artists and fans, I’ve always found myself firmly on the “Biggie, Jay-Z & Nas” side of New York centric rap fandom so I haven’t always been the most open to letting the Cam’ron’s, Lil’ Wayne’s, and the T.I.’s into the discussion of what makes a truly “great” rapper.

Since Lil’ Wayne’s unbelievably miraculous transformation from one of the youngest and most untalented Cash Money weed carriers in the late ‘90s/Baby’s first underage jump-off to contender (for various misguided souls and people who don’t know better) for the “Best Rapper Alive”, it has re-opened the classic “Who is The Greatest Of All-Time?” debate that had been somewhat closed since the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. As Brandon (and Uncle Ruckus himself, Byron Crawford) pointed out in his post, the (completely unwarranted and revisionist) souring of Tupac’s musical legacy in various music blogs, a rapper’s legacy is subject to change and rappers that were once considered canonical can become Spliff Star in a moment’s notice. I’ve always considered only three legitimate candidates for contender as G.O.A.T., Rakim - for being the most innovative and influential emcee of all-time, Nas - for his mastery of craft, the fact that he created Rap’s Holy Bible, and sheer lyrical genius, and Jay-Z* - for sustained commercial dominance, mastery of technique, and sheer influence. (*Biggie should replace Jay-Z on there but unfortunately, his death prevented an accurate measure of his sustained work). However, I think we have a new contender for G.O.A.T. and after listening to his new album, The Big Doe Rehab, his name is Ghostface Killah.

For some reason, Ghost is not in serious discussion about who the greatest of all-time is. Perhaps, it's his oddball eccentricities or the fact that he never had true solo commercial success or the fact that he's not known by the vast majority of the public but it should be fucking obvious. Absolutely NO rapper has enjoyed Ghostface’s level of sustained critical excellence neigh superiority in the history of rap music. Not Jay-Z, not Nas, not Rakim, not Ice Cube, not Scarface, not Tupac, not KRS-One, not anyone else in Wu-Tang. Every last one of his solo records are completely vivid and fantastic records that each have its unique vibe and musical direction that defy and push the current conventions of rap music including the underrated Bulletproof Wallets. Ghost has more stone cold classics on his resume than any other rapper, period; If you add his work on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Ironman, Wu-Tang Forever, Supreme Clientele, The Pretty Toney Album, Fishscale and if you include his major contributions to Raekwon’s seminal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, you have seven classic albums! SEVEN! Every other rapper I mentioned has only three except Scarface who has five classic albums but has dropped his share of musical turds as well.

But being the G.O.A.T. is more than having an immaculate discography. You have to be a dynamic and unique rapper and Ghost is perhaps the most truly unique rapper of all. Ghost is one of the rare rappers that has gotten better and better with age. He started out as in the bottom half of Wu-Tang Clan on their debut, good but nothing particularly spectacular when you compare him to Meth’s innovative flow, GZA’s mastery of metaphorical lyricism, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s off the wall delivery and charisma, Rae’s slang, and Deck’s raw lyricism. I wouldn’t even put him above RZA on their debut but somewhere between Cuban Linx and Wu-Tang Forever, he developed an oddball non-sequitur influenced slang and unparalleled emotional dramatics that earned him a spot with the greats. By the time, he dropped Supreme Clientele in 2000, he became the Best Rapper in the Clan which is saying a lot. However, it didn’t stop there. As rap became stagnant and “died”, Ghost continued to perfect his craft and became a master storyteller, a man obsessed with vivid and mundane details that transform your average song about crime and drugs into a meditation on violence. Ghost doesn’t just talk about violence but he describes and pratically emotes it from all angles: Emotionally, physically, metaphorically, hysterically, Ghost brings it all. But whatever...Ghost is great. He’s got a new album and it’s the Album Of The Year.

Big Doe Rehab is primarily about two things: sex and violence; their consequences, their relationship between each other, and the actual act of participating in each of these acts. No song best describes this than the absolutely stunning “Yolanda’s House” featuring Method Man and Raekwon. Rae, Ghost, and Meth narrate a story that starts with Ghost frantically running through the projects (again...) after narrowly escaping a drug bust and shootout with the police and searching for a safe house, Ghost runs into one of his girl’s house, Yolanda, only to discover Meth boxers around his hips fucking another girl on the couch while Ghost cracks up at the irony of it as he scares Meth and his girl half to death. Meth picks up the verse next and proceeds to chew Ghost out for his both his lack of manners and to lecture him on the mutual consequences that his dealing has on the community for everybody. The song is funny, ironic, exciting, and vivid and highlights all three rappers ample storytelling abilities. It’s subtle in the way, it both describes the consequences of drug dealing without being preachy and it shows the way sex and violence can occasionally collide. A moaning, orgasmic female wail underscores the soul strings and funky bass line and helps make the connection. Violence and sex are also addressed in songs like “Walk Around” where Ghost vividly describes the circumstances about and emotional consequences of the first time Ghost kills somebody, as well as “Superman Loover” referencing “Supa GFK”, “Shakey Dog Featuring Lolita” which is as detail rich as the original and “Killa Lipstick”, Ghost’s homage to EPMD’s classic, “Please Listen To My Demo.”

Ghost once again proves that he has the best ears in the biz for beats as the production on the album is ridiculous. The beats are as soul sample heavy as ever but despite the fact this is his fifth straight album rocking that style, it does not sound dated or tired. It still works. Ghost is as sharp as ever, lyrically. If the album has one weakness, its a bit derivate of Fishscale and the three songs that feature Ghost’s weed carrier cronies, Theodore Unit, drag whenever Ghost isn’t spitting a verse. (Seriously, can somebody drag Shawn Wigz out to the shed and shoot him so he doesn’t keep ruining Ghost’s songs. “White Linen Affair” is classic until Wigz shows up. I didn’t think I’d see a day where somebody would compete with Joe Scudda for Worst White Weed Carrier Award. These two clowns should start a group.)

Overall, this record just goes to highlight the giant flaws in 8 Diagrams. Wu-Tang still sounds great over the same dusty soul productions as ever and can still make great music together when they are in their comfort zone and feel equally inspired. Masta Killa on “Killa Lipstick” and Method Man on “Yolanda’s House” on their guest appearances absolutely maraude their verses. It proves that they still have classic in them somewhere and perhaps RZA is unintentionally sabatoging them by attempting to expand and experiment with the Wu-Tang sound instead of just hooking up some soul samples and letting these guys rock. When I initially heard that Ghost was gonna drop this album, the same day as 8 Diagrams, I was ten times more excited for the new Wu album despite the fact that Ghost dropped two top ten records last year and Fishscale was by far my favorite album last year. But once again, Ghost just makes this look easy. It took to his seventh great solo album to realize it. He’s the G.O.A.T. It’s that simple. Dennis Coles, Best Rapper Alive.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams: Review


Since the last time, the undisputed greatest rap group of all-time, The "Motherfucking" Wu-Tang Clan, formed like Voltron and made an album, a lot has changed with the world. We invaded, defeated, and proceeded to own Iraq's soul in a war that we somehow managed to lose. The country underwent the greatest economic recession since the Depression. Britney Spears married and divorced twice. Friends went off the air. Our Great Leader declared himself Emperor George The Lesser. 50 Cent became the most insidious major pop music star in possible the history of music like ever. Nas released four albums. Kanye released three. Jay-Z released two albums, retired, than released two more albums. A lot has happened.

Meanwhile, the undisputed greatest rap group of-all time, The "Motherfucking" Wu-Tang Clan has complained, bitched at, and bickered with each other more than any "Will They Or Won't They" obnoxious T.V. couple on some cute detective show drama. For a long-suffering Wu-Tang stan like myself, it's been hell. As much as I loved those Ghostface records, liked those GZA/DJ Muggs and Masta Killa records, tolerated that Raekwon record, and out right loathed those fucking Method Man records, all I really wanted was for Wu-Tang to get their act together, stop bitching about royalties that long ago got spent on RZA's invention of the Serato and dust habits and just make a fucking album and save hip hop from its inevitable horrific "infant-being tossed-into-some-spinning -lawnmower-blades-style" demise. Was that too much to ask? Apparently so, since the Wu couldn't even get it together for three years after Ol' Dirty Bastard's tragic overdose on everything that can be found in a CVS pharmacy plus Cristal.

However, all that has passed us and finally, The "Motherfucking" Wu-Tang Clan has come back to the faithful and their new album, 8 Diagrams, is finally upon us. Because the Wu-Tang can't do anything without somebody acting like my younger brother throwing a tantrum when he was four years old over me not letting play with my toys, their have been grumblings all through out the process to make this album. Earlier this summer, Ghostface was apparently refusing to grace the album with his presence because he disliked RZA's new shoes or something. Soon after, Raekwon apparently felt the need to bitch Miss Info on her website that RZA's beats were ruining the new album as if Mr. Immobilarity had a leg to stand on these days. Things weren't looking too good for the new album.

Well now, the record is here so what's the verdict. Is it the "shit sandwich" as the esteemed Byron Crawford suggested or is the classic that the nuthouse over at SOHH.com's message boards have been suggesting. Well....honestly...8 Diagrams is...a really, really confusing record. I'm truly and deeply at loss to make of it. It's at once wildly and totally disappointing and at the same time, somewhat oddly brilliant despite of it. It's as if RZA threw away everything that made the Wu-Tang sound great in the first place and said to himself "36 Chambers was under-produced. Nobody likes hard drums and finger snaps! What people want is orchestra strings, lots of bass and guitars! You know, I'm gonna produce this record as if I'm Kanye West and fly over everyone's head. Rock Critics Will Love Me! And more U-God! Definitely, more U-God!" Needless to say, that is gonna disappoint their core audience but at the same time, RZA's creating something new and kind of extraordinary. I just can't tell if I like it.

Lyrically, the Clan is on point (or as close to on point they'll ever be again) as usual. Meth sounds more inspired than he has been in years even if he on occasion still kicks a line as Papoosian as "I'm tryna bring the sexy back like Timbaland and Timberlake." Ghost, the Best Rapper Alive if we are going by the retarded Weezian "Let's Pretend Rakim isn't alive" standard, easily kicks the verse of the year (with all due respects to Dre 3000 on "International Player's Anthem") on "The Heart Gently Weeps" and anytime, his voice is heard on the song it instantly makes the song one hundred times better. GZA, Deck, MK, and Raekwon all do their thing even if they aren't quite the rappers that they used to be. They are still head and shoulders above the Short Bus Brigade that populates modern lyricism today. Surprisingly though, the rapper who turns in this albums most surprising performace is U-God (of all people!!!) on this album. U-God sounds like a man possessed and turns in the verse of his life on the George Clinton featuring "Wolves", the album's far and away best track. U-God is all over this album. If 36 Chambers was Meth and ODB's album, Wu-Tang Forever was Raekwon's and Deck's album, and The W was Ghostface's and RZA's, (and Iron Flag is....um, Masta Killa's or possibly the Contract Fulfillment Clause's album) than 8 Diagrams is U-God's. And honestly, while U-God turns in the best work of his life, that's part of the problem. U-God is just not the emcee that the others are in the group and if he is on the lionshare of the album than you are
going to have a problem. The album severely lacks from Ghost's lack of participation as he only shows up on about four songs and then disappears completely from the second half of the disc where it starts to lag. Ghost doesn't even bother to lend a verse to the somewhat underwhelming ODB tribute "Life Changes." Some of these songs scream out for a Ghostface verse as in some respects, he is the only member of the Clan that can channel ODB's chaotic comedy that helped soften the blow of the raw lyricism and death threats of the other. It's no suprise that the best songs on the album ("The Heart Gently Weeps", "Campfire" & "Get Em Out Your Way, Pa") are songs that Ghost is involved in. He's the best emcee in the Clan these days and if RZA was smart, he should've paid all the royalties he allegedly bilked from Ghost plus interest plus given him the patent to the Serato in order to get him on the lionshare of this album.

Ultimately, the album's biggest problem is the production. The problem is that it's not bad per se but it's just not Wu-Tang. Raekwon is right in the sense that the Wu-Tang sound isn't violins and guitars (no matter how dark and menacing they might be) but gutteral soul samples and drums that beat the shit out of you. RZA's production sounds too polished for a Wu-Tang record. It misses that crunch and hiss of 36 Chambers and the first run of solo LPs and honestly, that's what people love about the Wu-Tang. The harder than hell production. The production, however, un-Wu-Tang it actually is - is actually pretty damn good if you completely strip it off its context. It has a very dark and cinematic quality to it as it sounds like the musical cousin to RZA's work on the Kill Bill soundtrack. It kind of sounds like the weirder parts of The W and
Wu-Tang Forever first disc but it's not exactly the Wu-Tang sound and it leaves you feeling disappointed considering some of the verses these guys are spitting on.

I'm not sure where I would rank 8 Diagrams in terms of Wu-Tang albums. Obviously, its not better than 36 Chambers or the second disc of Forever, but I don't know if I would place it over Iron Flag or The W. Here's my prediction on the critical reception this album will recieve. Hip Hop fans and critics are gonna pan it, while rock critics and the Tom Briehan's of the world are gonna hail it, and it's gonna be a failure commericially even if it does do a big first week. However, I feel this album is a grower and eventually will be seen in a more positive light. It's just too weird to be completely written off as a "shit sandwich." I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. Wu-Tang just ain't the same as they were but part of me still thinks they ain't nothing to fuck wit. Hopefully, they'll come back to smash the world. Just get RZA off the dust.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Closed For Repairs A.K.A. Time Warner Cable Needs To Stop Being A Bitch

This message was transmitted shortly before the Evil Corporate Overlords At AOL Time Warner arrested and executed the Good Doctor Zeus Judge Dredd Style At His Cubicle At Work....Be Warned!!!

To Whom It May Concern:

Yeah, so I fly back to New York after spending the week back home in the glorious city of Cleveland, Ohio all prepped, primed, and ready to go to hand in my review for Wu-Tang's completely oddball new album only to discover that Time Warner had felt the neccessity to not make my cable and internet work leaving yours truly with very little options to update the greatest blog in the universe (Maddox can suck it). Seeing how I don't have a girlfriend (surprise, surprise...sigh...) and live by myself, I have very little options to umm, "entertain" myself so I'm slowly going dizzy being cooped up in my one bedroom joint with nothing to but uh....read. Ew! Reading ain't hip hop! So if you see a bunch of unexplained double homicides in Brooklyn over the next week, you know who *not* to snitch on. I promise I will return, sullen and full of hatred as ever. You haven't seen the last of DocZeus.

Sincerely,
The Good Doctor Zeus

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mixtapes Are Not Albums: Or How Da Drought 3 Is Like Watching Two And A Half Men


Once upon a time, not long ago, mixtapes were promotional tools used to generate “hype” for rappers you don’t care about. You know, the guys with names like Lil Dave or Terrordactyl that stand in front of the Virgin Megastore in Union Square and run up and try to annoy you into giving them like five bucks for a shitty, scratched CD-R with like 20 “songs” with him and his “crew” with names like the Hustle Murder Clique that were produced by some teenage white kid who was given a MPC sequencer that his parents bought him for Christmas. Usually, these abortions were filled with freestyles about how much cocaine they sold while shooting guns in their car while they fuck bitches in a lyrical finesse that can only be described as proto-Jeezian. I have fallen victim to these guys on several occasions so I have learned to spot them across the street before I enter the store as I always proceed to wait until they accost some unfortunate soul before I enter the premise with my head ducked down and my hat pulled low. I will not be taken advantage of, again! Goddammit!

The most famous of these Short Bus Squaders is a guy named 50 Cent. You may have heard of him. Mr. Cent when he was still attempting to get rich or die trying released a few inexplicably popular mixtapes that miraculously not only sold better than most rap albums but managed to capture the attention of Eminem and Dr. Dre. This unfortunate event not only ruined Eminem’s career but turned 50 Cent into the biggest star on the planet. This, of course, helped turn mixtapes from the province of untalented rappers on the street and Southern rappers (so I guess just untalented rappers on the street) into big business. Instead of the rejected weed carriers who used to put out mixtapes, legitimate rappers started making them as way to promote their album. Music labels started “authorizing” annoying DJs to shout all over unreleased material the label deemed too awful to put on the retail album and allow the DJ to sell their product free of charge and act as if they actually had anything to do with any completely unintentional artistic merit the mixtape might actually have. Why would the labels do this if they are giving a fourth rate DJ who can’t mix or scratch copyrighted material to sell on their own? You got me but apparently, the thinking was that it would help the annoying, washed up rapper nobody cares about anymore to sell a couple of more actual real life legitimate records at a Best Buy or something. I know, I don’t get it, either.

For the first few years of this phenomenon, people who make the taste routinely avoided these mixtapes and quite rightly wrote these glorified car commercials set to a shitty 808 beat off as the horrible, half thought garbage they were. I could live in peace...

Then Tom Breihan and the Pitchfork brigade discovered the Clipse and the We Got It 4 Cheap series and the whole world was turned upside. Suddenly, Cam’ron became a lyrical genius, the South wasn’t ruining hip hop, anymore, and Dwayne Carter became the Best Rapper Alive. What’s worse suddenly mixtapes that were being routinely ignored by the mainstream media started becoming legitimate and began showing up in Various Music Writer’s Year End Best Of Lists next to Interpol and Sufjian Stevens records. (The nerve!) Devoted hater that I am, I couldn’t let this stand. I wanted my comfortable world where Wu-Tang is the greatest thing to ever happen to hip hop, Illmatic is the best rap album ever made, and nothing remotely Southern or hipsterish broke into my closed, jaded canon back and I’m making a stand. Mixtapes are not albums!

I know this firmly entrenches me as an insufferable, Mos Def hugging, Illmatic loving elitist but a mixtape by its very nature is a completely different artistic medium than an album. Its kind of comparable to the difference between movies and television. Both mediums are very, superficially similar, they both feature music, songs, and something remotely passing as artistic vision but the fundamental difference between them makes them completely incongruous. They have different strengths and weaknesses that makes them separate. For example, a mixtape because of its “illegal” or “promotional” nature allows an artist to experiment with their sound and create the type of musical “sketches” that is often too commercially dangerous to put on a retail album. A freestyle whether its over a jacked Outkast song or an original creation is essentially a sketch. It allows the rapper to ignore the conventions of song writing and simply experiment with their words lyrically. However, a freestyle is not a song. A good song with very, few exceptions is structured and follows certain conventions. A freestyle is not. Even songs like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph” or the Juice Crew’s “Symphony” plays within the conventional structure of the posse cut in hip hop and usually has a unifying theme. Mixtapes because of their freer nature can eschew the commercial and artistic responsibilities of an album. Because of the inherent experimentation going on, it allows the artist to express in some sense their true artistic goal. You rarely hear the pandering, cheesed out love song on an Uncle Murder mixtape but you damn well hear it on his album. In some sense, mixtapes are like television because you get a chance to really explore the truer side of the artist which is lot like the way a long running television show allows you to get to know a character more than a movie possibly can. The commercial aspirations most albums have usually prevent an artist even some with as delusions of grandeur if you will as Common or Talib Kweli from making an album that's full of spoken word interludes, guitar playing, and freestyle rapping. Mos Def’s Crazy Ass, of course, is the exception.

However, the strength of the album is the greatest weakness of a mixtape. Albums like movies allow for a grander perspective than mixtapes. Since they have higher budgets and feature original material, it allows the artist to create a cohesive musical statement or theme which is almost nonexistent in the mixtape world. I can’t think of an example of mixtape that has the same cohesive sound that a record like The Blueprint does or make a grand statement like Hip Hop Is Dead (if misguided statement if you are one of the people with their head in the sand). Usually, mixtapes are almost exclusively rejected album material and freestyles over other artist’s most popular tracks. You may luck out and find that you have something with great rapping and great beats like the Clipse’s We Got It 4 Cheap series but usually, you are just listening to somebody like Papoose abusing the world “like” when he confuses the concept of metaphors and similes with his tired ass punch lines.

Ultimately, I think it’s a lot harder to make a great album that to make a “great” mixtape. All jokes aside, since Lil Wayne’s coronation by the Pitchforkers and 15 year old who don’t know better, Weezy has made a lot of mixtapes that have gotten a lot of people really, really excited but he’s still not turned in a jaw dropping Ready To Die-like revelatory album. Its all fun and games to experiment with your voice and freestyle about drugs on a mixtape that only people on the internet care about but my feeling is the reason The Carter III is taking so long to be released is because Lil’ Wayne is looking to make a large, commercial smash and can’t write one. If you ask me, The Carter III is gonna leave a lot of critics disappointed when it sounds more like Kingdom Come than Reasonable Doubt. Many rappers struggle to make the transition from the mixtape scene to writing a full length album and its precisely because of the commercial and artistic demands that an album asks for that prevents them. Its a lot easier to kick a bunch of hot sixteens over somebody else's beat than it is to write a song as allegorical as “I Gave You Power” or even as ubiquitous as “In Da Club.”

If you take one thing from this post, I’d like for all of you when you make your Year End Best Of Lists to leave off any mixtapes off your best albums list. If I see Da Drought 3 or DJ “I’d Be Better Off Using Words Like Culo And Just Pretend I’m Spanish” Drama name anywhere near the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll this year, I’m gonna freak. Mixtapes are mixtapes. Albums are albums. Please take note.

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.