REVIEW – “Never forget where you came from.”
These are some of the earliest words on American Gangster, an album that’s proof that Jay-Z will never forget where he came from.
Call it Brooklyn, call it the streets. But whatever you call it, Jay-Z is defined by it. Hova’s gangster roots play a huge role in the songs of American Gangster.
Just days after the Denzel Washington movie of the same name hit theaters, Jay-Z dropped this album. Like the movie, this CD has generated a lot of talk. Some have compared it to one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time – Jay’s own Reasonable Doubt.
With reasonable assurance, though, American Gangster is not as great as what Hov put out in 1996 as a 27-year-old.
What the soon-to-be 37-year-old did prove, however, is that he can still spit rhymes with the best in the rap game, which many doubted after the release of his sub-par ninth album Kingdom Come less than a year ago.
The intro to American Gangster, which includes the “never forget where you came from” line, is an excerpt from the movie – Jay doesn’t utter a word. By song two, though, Sean Corey Carter comes out firing. The Sean “Diddy” Combs-produced beat in “Pray” has an excellent flow, and Jay-Z raps lines like “refreshing, sweet taste of sin / everything I seen made me everything I am” and “this is why I be so fresh / I’m tryin’ to beat life, ’cause I can’t cheat death.”
Two songs from American Gangster were already banging on the radio weeks before the release of the album. “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)” and “Blue Magic” definitely have some of the best beats on American Gangster. “Blue Magic,” even though its message is directed toward hustlers, speaks to all types of people. Jay raps “I’m gettin’ it / I ain’t talkin’ ’bout it / I’m livin’ it,” and guest act Pharrell Williams finishes it up with “don’t you waste your time, fighting the light / stay your course, and you’ll understand.”
Even a kid can learn a lesson from that chorus. Stay your course. Don’t give up. Keep trying. Jay-Z certainly has, even though some feel he’s too old to be in the rap game.
Unlike Reasonable Doubt, American Gangster has a few flaws, the most disappointing of which is the song “Hello Brooklyn 2.0.” Jay-Z’s verses aren’t bad, but the trite chorus and obnoxious yelling of “Helloooooooo, Brooklyyyyyyn” every couple of seconds overshadow the lyrics.
Some of the slower music on the album isn’t bad, even if it isn’t traditional “gangster music,” but “I Know,” another song featuring Pharrell, is flat-out annoying. If Jay shouted “I know what you like” just once, it would be okay, but his constant howling of that line, along with Pharrell’s “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know” is irritating.
I was also unprepared to hear the voice of Marvin Gaye, along with the tune to his song “What’s Going On?” on the album, but “American Dreamin'” is a decent song.
Overall, American Gangster is an album that can be played from start to finish. The song “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)” starts with the line “And the winner is Hov.” In actuality, though, every fan of Jay-Z will feel like a winner once this album is placed on the shelf between The Blueprint and The Dynasty.
Jeff Appelblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.