November 8, 2007

Record Review: Jay-Z

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At the start of American Gangster, Jay-Z doesn’t seem himself. After a bit of listening, though, I question whether this was the decline of a legend, or a conscious decision. Listeners get the Jigga Man they know and love, along with some flows and styles they’re not really accustomed to.
The album begins with an intro that strings together quotes, at least some of which are from the recent movie American Gangster — the album’s namesake and inspiration. While the words give the audience a look into what was going on in Jay’s mind when he put this album together, the music sets the eerie tone that will follow in much of the rest of the album. Gun shots, a deep synth and the crying of a mysterious guitar have listeners looking over their shoulders as they prepare for the next 14 tracks.
The danger continues with “Pray.” All the elements of the song create a very pervasive storytelling mood. Jigga unenthusiastically drops his tale over a stiffly monotonous, pumping bass drum pattern. Sounds of cars screeching and echoed shouts of “Hey” in the background create an unsettling suspense as you wait for disaster to strike.
After five tracks of dark music and emotional content, Jay starts the party with “Roc Boys.” Blaring horns and an energized emcee create a vivid image of Hov up on stage backed by a line of flashy looking trumpet players swinging from side to side as their instruments sing. The song is as visual as it is auditory.
This fun side of Jay that we are familiar with from work like “Big Pimpin’” and “Izzo” is a bit hidden on his latest effort. “Roc Boys” and the two bonus tracks, “Blue Magic” and “American Gangster,” are about it. The rest of the CD is made up primarily of slow moving beats that support a tired sounding Jay-Z.
On “Party Life,” Hova spits a choppy, directly on the beat, almost amateur flow, that works perfectly and somehow sounds good over a slow, simple, relaxing beat.
Jay sounds a bit reserved on “American Dreamin’,” where his vocals almost fall into the background under an appealing musical composition that includes dynamic drums with fills and cymbal crashes that sound like a live player.
The majestic music of “Say Hello” has the feel of an interlude or outro, but is actually the longest track on the album. As he laments that people talk about him or say he’s a bad person, Jay reminds us of his awareness of musical time and rhythm. Whether it’s stuttering, pausing, or any other method, Jigga has a knack for a tight, consistent flow that makes every measure full. In the case of this particular lyrical effort, he fills the space with two words that mean the same thing when he says “We’re sorta kinda the same.”
Long time rival turned collaboration partner and fellow New York legend Nas joins Jay on the organ-driven “Success.” Neither rapper brings his A-game, however, and the beat grows mundane after a while, as it fails to move or change in any way.
For the most part, Jigga’s most noticeable missteps on American Gangster come during songs that are otherwise pretty solid. On “Hello Brooklyn 2.0,” Jay-Z’s love letter to his hometown, Hov cleverly talks to Brooklyn as if it is a person. The inclusion of the Louisiana born and bred Lil’ Wayne on a song about Brooklyn is questionable, however, as is a southern sounding beat. The instrumental, with its deep kick drums and tight, short snare drum hits characteristic of the Dirty South, does not match the lyrics of the track.
Likewise, while Jigga gives it his all on “No Hook,” and he sounds good, the title is a bit misleading. Jay goes the standard 16 bars before pausing for brief instrumental interludes and a one-line hook. This is not as impressive as songs such as Eminem’s “Run Rabbit Run” and Nas’ “Rewind,” in which the emcees go two or three minutes without stopping. These songs are more deserving of the “No Hook” label.
Whenever a legend puts out a new record, his reputation is on the line. When several of your previous nine albums are leagues ahead of other artists’ “Greatest Hits” collections, it’s tough to recreate that magic. Unfortunately, Jay-Z shows signs of falling off in this tenth installment. Luckily, when in need, he gets help from creative board work. Most of the songs on this latest album would be skipped if put in track list the caliber of Hov’s debut album Reasonable Doubt or Blueprint, which received all five mics from “The Source” magazine. Assessed on its own, though, each song is well crafted and nice to listen to. Jay-Z will always be Jay-Z, and American Gangster is still worth a spin or two.