1. Reasonable Doubt.
2. American Gangster/The Black Album/The Grey Album
3. The Blueprint
And that’s how you sum up a man’s life.
As you may already know, Jay-Z was inspired by a screening of the Ridley Scott film American Gangster and decided to make songs that were inspired by the movie. That’s the official version at least. What real Jay-Z fans have suspected is that Jay needed an excuse to return to his most comfortable subject matter, drugs. He found it and he takes full advantage of the freedom to litter his rhymes with crack dealing references and not be called fake because he drives a Maybach and talks to Bono.On to the album itself, it’s not a completely assured return to the mic, but it does have many gems reminiscent of Jay at his peak and a near perfect second half. Even Jay-Z’s few missteps come not in the form of bad songs but merely underwhelming songs.
For example, Jay shot for Dead Presidents 2 gritty urban dram territory with No Hook but ends up with a just a good song. American Dreamin is a perfectly good song and boasts excellent production values but once again fails to impress. Pray could use a little more gravitas but serves as an effective opener to the album, nothing more nothing less. Also, Hello Brooklyn undercuts Jay’s lyrics with an inadequate beat and the persistent annoyance that is Lil Wayne.
Sweet is a confused song and epitomizes the word filler. Roc Boys, however, is a perfect single and just a great song all around. Fully realized and energetic, Roc Boys is an ode to celebration but Jay-Z manages the near impossible task, at least in modern day rap, of balancing fun with lyricism. Roc Boys is fine if one wishes to simply sing the hook and hum along to the infectious trumpets, but those who do not delve deeper into the song for Jay’s clever insights will be duly rewarded.
The standouts on this album are much more surprising and even fun while maintaining consistent doses of the potent Jay-Z wordplay and witticisms America has fallen in love with. The duet with Nas, Success, happened by chance but rap fans should be very glad it did. Not only does Success top Black Republicans but becomes a bona fide hip hop classic as two legends boast about oddly enough, not exactly admiring the view from the top.
I Know is one of Pharell’s best productions ever and Jay steps up his game, using the apt metaphor of heroin addiction as love. Jay incisively mocks love with his never flailing sang froid while putting out a highly engaging and sinister call for his fiend to return to using his product. It is not only of the best songs on the album but ranks among the best Jay Z songs of all time. The best compliment I can pay this flawless song is that it is the sequel to perhaps the highlight of The Black Album, Allure.
Of course, this being Jay-Z he does need to have a song for the ladies, and in Party Life, Jay once again achieves the balance he has attempted to maintain throughout his career between making songs with mass appeal and making vibrant, lyrical masterpieces. Party Life is no D’Evils but it is an apt successor to Feelin’ It, Jay’s classic Reasonable Doubt ode to weed and women. For those not familiar with rap terms, flow is the rhythm or particular pattern with which rappers string together words. Jay has always been known for his flow but on Party Life he achieves an unparalleled technical mastery of rhyme schemes.Listening to Party Life is a relaxing breezy experience but it is also a rap virtuoso at work.
Also look for Jay’s witty interludes in lieu of a hook. For the first time in perhaps rap history, Jay pull the unprecedented move of actually going back and explaining his clever rhymes. He is sick of his lyrics flying over the collective heads of casual fans, and hey if he can still put out this kind of quality, he deserves to make you realize his genius.
Ignorant Shit is the much buzzed about Imus diss and it comes in the form of one of Jay-Z’s viciously political songs ever. For those who doubt Jay-Z’s intelligence, listen to his self aware command of irony and rhetoric and not acknowledge that he is an intellectual. Say Hello is smooth, soulful and simply a great song.
Fallin’ rounds out the concept album with the fall of the gangster and demonstrates another classic Jay flows as he tailors his voice to the rhythms of the oddly moving beat. Although Fallin’ is a terrific song it is hampered by the amateurish voice of Bilal on the chorus. John Legend was a phone call away Jay.
Blue Magic is one of Jay’s best songs of all time and another standout Pharrell track. It perfectly captures the vibes of the 80s with Rakim’s flow and touches of political menace. Jay was right in that it did not fit into the concept part of the album due to both the subject matter and the raw, brutal beat but fans should be thankful that they got to hear this gem, at least as a bonus track. It’s a showcase for Jay’s prodigious talents and displays a legendary rapper on top of his game. The same could be said for American Gangster as a whole.
On a tangent, what is it with Jay and Ridley Scott movies? The beginning of What More Can I Say was a sample from Gladiator. I, for one, cannot wait until Jay makes an album based off of A Good Year. Also, his album was better than the movie. I have the distinct feeling that this might be Jay’s last album, he went out on top with The Black Album in a haze of critical adulation and popular success, two things that American Gangster also achieved. This could be Jay going out on top. On the other hand he did just quit his job, so unless he gets bored with managing his empire this could be it.