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Jay-Z - American Gangster

Jay-Z, American Gangster

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

MAYBE it’s just me, but Denzel Washington has the kind of voice I can listen to all day. A sample on an old DJ Shadow cut (“If you want me to rock, I’ll rock”, from Training Day) never fails to send a shiver down the spine. So, when Denzel’s latest big screen incarnation, Frank Lucas, declares “nobody owns me though” at the start of Jay-Z’s new album, American Gangster, I was suitably giddy.

Sadly, there’s not enough of it on this new Jay-Z LP that’s described as a musical journey and lyrical interpretation of snapshots from the upcoming motion picture American Gangster, the true story of one of America’s most notorious black crime figures from the ’70s.

The conceptual, full body of work from the new album balances the line between entertainment and real life with Jay-Z drawing on past experinces and articulating on the lure of a gangster’s life.

As such, it’s a little too prone to the sort of criticisms surrounding a lot of mainstream hip-hop and its apparent obsession with gangsta and celebrity. Unlike work from 50 Cent or The Game, however, there is plenty to admire about it, even if the overall result feels a little too smothered in gangsta chic.

Tracks like Pray demonstrate Jay-Z’s indisputable ability to juggle hard-hitting, socially aware lyricism with some inventive administation – this one adopting some cinematic strings and some female backing vocals to deliver a genuinely rousing hip-hop anthem.

The smooth soul intro of American Dream’ invites the listener back to the Frank Lucas era depicted in Ridley Scott’s new film, and works well in tandem with Jay-Z’s flow once it kicks in.

And there’s a kick-ass bass-heavy beat on the urgent Hello Brooklyn that demands a super set of speakers to really bring the experience to life.

There’s some funky stabs of brass running throughout the Harlem-heavy shuffle of (Roc Boys) And The Winner Is… that probably derives its inspiration from the big boxing sequence featured in the movie (surely, the Rocky comparisons are intended?). And Success, featuring a movie sample from Armand Assante, features some hip hamond organ and a welcome vocal collaboration from Nas that heralds another LP highlight.

I also digged the smooth Northern Soul backdrop of Fallin’ and its infectious back beat, the cinematic influence and urban grind of lead single Blue Magic which benefits from Pharrell Williams production skills, and the out and out funk of final cut American Gangster.

But there are moments when the album lapses into generic and very bland hip hop, such as Say Hello and I Know. There are a few selections on the album that feel more like filler, rather than killers.

That said, if you like the American Gangster movie (and let’s face it, the movie rocks) and dig the slick blend of contemporary hip hop atttitude and ’70s funk and cinema influences, then Jay-Z has delivered another essential collection of music. It’s as sharp and attitude heavy as that man Frank Lucas (aka Denzel Washington) himself.

Download picks: Pray, American Dreamin’, Hello Brooklyn, (Roc Boys) And The Winner Is…, Success, Fallin’, American Gangster, Blue Magic

Track listing:

  1. Intro
  2. Pray
  3. American Dreamin’
  4. Hello Brooklyn
  5. No Hook
  6. Roc Boys
  7. Sweet
  8. I Know
  9. Party Life
  10. Ignorant Shit
  11. Say Hello
  12. Success
  13. Blue Magic
  14. American Gangster