A couple of weeks ago or so, I used the online appearance of a new Wu-Tang Clan tune to complain – from a dilettante-ish position, I admit – that 2007 has been a thin year for hip-hop. It now looks like the Wu album may have been put on hold for a while, though apparently there is the substantial compensation of a new Ghostface Killah album instead.
Today’s post, though, brought “American Gangster”, the new album from Jay-Z, a rapper who I’ve been fairly obsessed with in the past. It’d be overstating things a bit to make out that “American Gangster” is a bona fide classic to rank alongside “The Blueprint”, “Life And Times Of S. Carter”, “Reasonable Doubt” et al. But after a couple of listens, it seems like his recent pattern of ropey album followed by a good one has been continued.
So while last year’s comeback “Kingdom Come” (after a brief, Sinatra-esque retirement) was a windy and forgettable cruise through some familiar Jay-Z tropes, “American Gangster” is a much tighter and more compelling trip through, well, much the same sort of territory I suppose. You’ll have to forgive me for not having analysed the lyrics in depth yet, but I’m struggling to see the grand conceptual arc that the album purportedly shares with the new Ridley Scott mob pic of the same name.
It does, though, allow Jay-Z to wheel out his usual extended riffs on hustling, business and the connections between them, while not getting his hands too dirty. He doesn’t get too bogged down either this time with all the “I’m back” showboating which made great chunks of “Kingdom Come” so interminable. It’d be a bit dumb to expect humility from a Jay-Z album: to enjoy this stuff, you have to go along with the imperial boasting, and accept that Jay-Z’s wordplay and general deftness with a cliché elevates him far above most of his contemporaries. Even a fan, though, can get weary of it when, as on “Kingdom Come”, the posturing sounds so half-hearted.
On “American Gangster”, in contrast, he sounds spry, serious and fully engaged. There are elements here which suggest a plush, executive-class upgrade of Jay-Z’s early New York sound, not least the presence of Diddy (y’know, Puff Daddy) and some footsoldiers from his Hitmen team as producers on nearly half of the album. They’re cocksure enough to build “American Dreamin’” out of a hefty chunk of Marvin Gaye’s “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again”, while the fantastic “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)” rides some triumphant horn voluntaries and features, if you listen closely, some distant backing vocals from Beyonce and Kanye West.
Kanye doesn’t produce anything this time round, though the other key architect behind late-period Jay-Z triumphs, Just Blaze, is on hand for the Curtis Mayfield-riding title track. In general, I prefer Jay-Z records these days when he rides old soul breaks rather than crisp electro minimalism (those days of “I Just Wanna Love You” and “Big Pimpin’” seem a long way away now). That said, The Neptunes turn in a couple of tracks, “I Know” and “Blue Magic”, which, while not up to the standards of their Clipse productions from 2006 (“Blue Magic” is in that vein, actually), are still satisfyingly edgier than most of the schmaltz they’ve put out in the last couple of years.
I’m onto the third listen now, and my judgment of “American Gangster” is definitely on the up. Some great things here coming hard into focus: as I write, the exceptionally lush grandstanding of “Say Hello”; the exceptionally lush grandstanding of “Ignorant Shit” – you get the picture. And I guess I’m grasping the more satisfying conceptual parallels between the American Gangster movie and this album: not just as an excuse for Jay-Z, respected and imposingly successful orthodox businessman, to play at being a crook again. But to reassert the ties between Jay-Z’s art and the culture of gangster movies, so that in “Ignorant Shit” he points out, “Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me”, and to justify all those luxuriant ‘70s soul samples as not just great aesthetic backdrops, but as crucial historical contextualising.
Because while Jay-Z has never really gone down the acting road like so many other rappers, “American Gangster” is not street verite, it’s great American theatre. At the end of “Ignorant Shit”, after nearly four minutes of bad boy posturing that seems to steer (not least thanks to the title) into gleeful self-parody, he cackles, “It’s only entertainment”. And boy, it is.