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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

American Gangster: The album delivers impressive lyrics

By Jules Ouanes

There are two types of Jay-Z albums. First there’s the generally good ones, such as “The Dynasty” and “Life and Times Vol. 3,” in which Jay’s greatness is scattered through inconsistent production and sub-par guest verses. Then there’s the cohesive, near-perfect records he’s made where his access to A-list producers pays off. “American Gangster,” a concept-album inspired by Ridley Scott’s new film of the same name, falls under the latter.One of the things I’ve always loved about Jay’s music is how his best pieces of work are so different from each other. Just look at the contrast between the dark, hustler’s ambition embodied by “Reasonable Doubt,” “Blueprint’s” soulful strings and helium samples, and the farewell grandeur of “The Black Album.” So after last year’s disappointing comeback record “Kingdom Come,” where Jay rhymes about being friends with Gwyneth Paltrow (among other things, of course), he’s now returned to the gritty drug tales that put him on the map in the first place.

For I while now, I’ve considered Jay the best rapper ever. He has the most subtlety complex flow hip-hop has ever seen, and his freestyle approach (Jay barely writes anything he raps) gives it a confident spontaneity that makes it almost impossible to duplicate. His matter-of-fact delivery sometimes disguises how technically sound he is. For example, he has a knack for brilliantly simple word play (“haters don’t get the picture ’til my weapons is drawn”). And the way he effortlessly weaves syllables together and stretches his voice to reflect his titanic presence on the mic is amazing to hear.

As a concept album, “American Gangster” does a good job at developing a story from start to finish. The first chapter begins with Jay’s rise to power; then spends a few tracks celebrating the success he’s achieved before diving right into his fall from grace. But what’s more impressive than the actual concept feel of the album is the music.

Lyrically, this is some of Jay’s most focused and fine-tuned work of his career. The album’s first song, “Pray,” has Jay painting a disturbing picture of the drug-infested, corrupt streets of New York and the environment that made him turn to drug trafficking. He takes a slight detour from the album’s concept on “Ignorant Shit” to tackle all the negativity the media is pinning on hip-hop lately over Just Blaze’s pulsing instrumental. The title track stands out with its arsenal of multi-syllable, double time raps. But the most impressive vocal performance on the album is the paranoid “No Hook.” Over distant guitar plucks and restrained violins that build on each verse he raps, Jay breaks down a hustler’s mindset and tendencies with a chilling sense of awareness of his ensuing downfall later in the album.

Jay-Z took a much different direction with this album in terms of production. Usually, he floods the record with big-name producers, and he still has a couple Just Blaze and Pharrell tracks on this one. But the core of the album comes from Diddy and his group of in-house beat smiths The Hitmen, a relatively unknown group who lace half the album. They live up to the task, crafting a variety of tracks that use soul samples and blaxpoitation horns to bring the listener to the streets of New York in the 1970’s. The surreal “American Dream” is one of the better beats I’ve heard in a while, as it’s haunting violins are complemented perfectly by a chopped up Marvin Gaye sample that reflects the ambitions of a young hustler stuck in a vicious cycle.

While it is not the best album of his career, “American Gangster” is the kind of record an artist of Jay’s stature and talent is supposed to make at the end of their career, a completely raw return to the lyricism that made his debut one of the best albums of all time. This is the first album Jay’s made that’s void of any commercial intentions at all. There are no radio-friendly singles; he even took it off iTunes at the last minute so that listeners couldn’t buy individual songs, saying that this album is meant to be listened to in its entirety. Jay-Z’s become the Brett Favre of rap, returning to his prime after even his biggest and most loyal fans thought he was done.

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