In the rap world of 2007, is there a more polarizing MC than Jay-Z? Chances are youd be hard pressed to find a rapper with more disparity between his supporters and critics. With that being said, perhaps it is extremely appropriate that his latest project would be in the form of the equally polarizing concept album. When executed correctly, the concept album can be an artistic masterpiece renowned for generations (see The Whos Tommy). Conversely, a poorly executed concept album receives scorn from critics and may alienate even the most dedicated fans (see The Smashing Pumpkins Machina/ The Machines of God).
After viewing an advanced copy of Ridley Scotts portrayal of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster, Jay-Z left with a concept in mind of where he wanted his next project to go. To anyone familiar with Hovs discography, the similarities between the film and Jay-Zs lyrical themes throughout his career are quite obvious. While Lucas story was obviously on a much more grandiose scale, Jay-Z also claims to have been quite involved in the drug game before his success in rap music. With American Gangster, he examines the rise and fall of a New York gangster. While the album is in no way a classic like Tommy or The Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, it is a well-executed concept album, and musically one of the best rap albums of the year.
The concept of the album is enforced from the intro, containing samples from the film and philosophies on what it means to be a gangster. Following this is the first song, Pray, which while objectively, is not a bad song, sounds a little dated in its production. However, aside from the slightly underwhelming beat, Jay-Z starts the album off on a decent tone because of strong lyricism.
From here, American Gangster starts to pick up the pace. The next track is entitled American Dreamin, and is both lyrically and production-wise one of the strongest tracks on the album. This song illustrates the dreams of a rising gangster perfectly, and stays true to the concept of the album perhaps better than any of the other tracks.
Following this song is a collaboration with Lil' Wayne. Like his collaboration with Kanye West on Barry Bonds, here Hello Brooklyn leaves much to be desired. Given that the song features perhaps two of the top twenty MCs of the past ten years, the listener would expect much more than this product. Not to mention, the song seems to deviate from the overall concept of the album. Overall, the song is just mediocre and out of place on the album. However, this is the last major misstep on American Gangster.
At this point, the concept of the album gradually shifts from the wide-eyed wannabe waiting to get his foot in the door, to the legitimate kingpin rising to larger than life status. No Hook showcases Jay-Z at perhaps his lyrical peak, providing a true throwback song for hip-hop purists. Roc Boys (And the Winner is) is a celebratory track that details the lavish lifestyle that accompanies the gangster career path. The next three tracks, Sweet, I Know, and Party Life continue to examine the theme of the glamorous side of the gangster lifestyle. The latter track contains excellent production, however could have been much better if Jay-Z had actually dropped another hot verse instead of all of the (sometimes annoying) adlibs that fill it.
The next three songs of the album provide a deeper, more introspective look into the mind of the gangster. Say Hello addresses the scorn received from outsiders. Success is a collaboration with Nas, and examines the downsides to reaching such elite status, but isnt without its fair share of braggadocio. As far as comparing the two MCs on this track, I would have to give the nod to Nas for dropping a better verse. This portion of the album finishes with Fallin, which is one of the best tracks on American Gangster. Here, Jay-Z details the rise of the gangster, but gradually descends into the pitfalls that almost always accompany such a lifestyle.
The album is finished off by two strong tracks, in Blue Magic and American Gangster, respectfully. While both songs contain solid lyricism and production, they truly feel out of place. Both tracks are similar thematically to a song like Roc Boys, and would perhaps fit better in the celebratory phase of the album. The album would be conceptually stronger if these two songs were in the middle, and ending with a song like Fallin. However, both tracks are definitely solid when considering them objectively.
Overall, Jay-Z managed to drop one of the best rap albums of the year in 2007. Aside from a couple of missteps, the album worked very well conceptually as well as musically. Many fans, myself included, were extremely skeptical about this album following the less than stellar Kingdom Come; however, I am glad to say I was definitely proven wrong. Jay-Z dropped an album for fans of real rap music again, not unlike his debut, Reasonable Doubt. I think its safe to say hes on our good side again.
8.9 / 10
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