3 out of 5 stars
Let’s face facts: ever since Jay-Z left the desk and headed back to the studio, things have been a little shaky. When Jay dropped “The Black Album” in 2003 as a confident retirement statement and took the position as Def Jam’s president, he became arguably the most respected person in hip-hop. He was the prodigy who left the spotlight at the top of his game, before he faded into middle-aged mediocrity.
Of course, Jay-Z couldn’t resist the itch for long, so he dropped the briefcase, picked up the mic and released 2006’s “Kingdom Come,” which was greeted with a universal shoulder shrug. “American Gangster,” Jay-Z’s tribute album to the Ridley Scott film, is not exactly a return to form, but it is a solid album from a man trying to regain his footing. He sounds hungrier than ever, armed with a handful of ’70s samples and the need to reprove his skills. His sleek one-liners pack a sizable punch and feel like a breath of fresh air.
Granted, there are still too many missteps to mark “American Gangster” as a classic. The beats are reliably fantastic and he can still deconstruct them effortlessly.
Drawing influence from the gritty swagger of the film, much of “American Gangster” sizzles with violent wordplay. On “Blue Magic,” Jay buries himself in a Neptune-esque beat and methodically spits about the cold details of the drug world.
“Roc Boys” is a self-congratulatory track with a massive horn riff that’s become a signature of Jay’s, but his slinky cadence and unstoppable confidence make it vital. His wordplay has thankfully returned to the knockout turn-of-phrases that he perfected on 2001’s “The Blueprint,” with tossed-off lines like “Got less steps than Britney/ That means it ain’t stepped on, dig me?”
Jay runs into trouble only when he strays from his dynamic personality and depends on lazy posturing. “Hello Brooklyn” finds him throwing out faceless clichés and letting Lil’ Wayne, who has replaced Jay-Z as the best rapper alive, deliver all the good lines. Meanwhile, “I Know” is the album’s biggest clunker, with a half-asleep Jay trying to seduce a girl.
It may be considered disappointing that Jay never explores any new territory on “American Gangster,” but after “Kingdom Come,” an above-average retread is more than welcome. The album is proof that he is once again committed to ruling the mic – if he’s lost a step, he’s determined to make it up.