Jay-Z: reviewed

Following a spoken-word intro that includes snippets of dialogue from the movie, the disc explodes with cinematic strings and kick-drum style bass while Jay-Z describes “the genesis of a nemesis” on the track “Pray,” which features a nice cameo from his girl Beyoncé.


Jay-Z alludes to the Lucas character on several other tracks, but not slavishly. Historic references mix with contemporary nods. There are no numbers like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” the epic that set the real-life tale of wrongfully incarcerated boxer Rubin Carter to music.


“Please don’t compare me to other rappers … I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris,” Jay-Z spits on “No Hook.” The song chronicles a young man who loses his father and hustles to get himself and his mother out of the ghetto. It’s an oft-told rap tale but Jay-Z imbues it with pathos and telling details. The catchiest song on the album is the horn-heavy “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…),” a victory lap for the Frank Lucas character featuring a cameo by Kanye West.


Seeing Lucas portrayed on screen got Jay-Z’s creative juices flowing. It inspired a compelling album at a time when mainstream hip-hop has its back against the ropes. But essentially it covers the same subject matter he and other rappers have been mining for years. If Jay-Z wants to push the envelope and reinvigorate rap, his next album will sidestep the drug trade and brags about Rolexes altogether. 4 stars

American Gangster

JAY-Z

Roc-A-Fella

One of hip-hop’s most consistently brilliant artists, Jay-Z disappointed with last year’s Kingdom Come. The freestyle virtuoso sounded spent on the CD, which was released on the heels of his famously brief and busy retirement. Expensive beats from producers like Dr. Dre and Just Blaze banged, and Jigga Man’s artful phrasing remained astounding, but the disc lacked verve. One couldn’t help think Jay-Z might best serve his legacy by confining himself to running Def Jam Recordings, while leaving the actual rapping to the next generation.

But Jay-Z wasn’t having that. He attended an advance screening of American Gangster and emerged with a new game plan. Instead of continuing to rhyme exclusively about his larger-than life persona and checkered past, the rapper would riff on the movie’s protagonist, 1960s-’70s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, who is played in the film by Denzel Washington.

The strategy worked. Jay-Z’s album American Gangster hits hard, the rapper sounding focused and impassioned, unleashing razor rhymes over a combination of contemporary synth beats, live horns, organ and old-school funk samples concocted by producers like Diddy, The Neptunes, Bigg D and Just Blaze.

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