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This Ain't a Movie, Dog

Jay-Z Loses The Plot While Trying to See The Big Picture

J-Ovah?: The Good Life Agrees With Jay-Z, But It Isn't Doing Much For His Skills.

By Al Shipley | Posted 11/7/2007

Let it never be said that Shawn Carter doesn't know how to keep a secret. This week, Jay-Z, the most revered and intensely scrutinized artist in hip-hop, releases his 10th studio album, American Gangster (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam). Less than two months ago, no one knew it existed. Then, on a Wednesday in mid-September, vague rumors began to swirl on blogs and gossip web sites, and by the end of that Thursday, the first single was out, along with an interview in The New York Times announcing the album.

He's tried to keep such news under wraps before, with last year's Kingdom Come, his first album after a three-year "retirement" that no one, including Jay-Z himself, ever believed would last. But that album's existence was heavily rumored for months, with several of its producers acknowledging publicly that they'd been in the studio with him well before its official unveiling. In both instances, Jay-Z appeared to be circumventing the interminable wait and constant delays plaguing most major-label rap albums these days. And if anyone can do it, it's him; he is, after all, the CEO at Def Jam and can set his or anyone's release dates whenever he pleases.

The secrecy around American Gangster was more successfully maintained, perhaps because of sensitive timing and higher stakes. It was no coincidence that the album's announcement came the day after first-week sales had rolled in for Graduation, the third album by his longtime protégé and producer Kanye West. But more importantly, Jay-Z had something to prove that hasn't been in question for more than a decade: whether or not he's still capable of making a great album, or even a merely good one. Kingdom Come went double-platinum-by no means a failure-but was a fiasco on every other level and by far the worst album of his career. Its flaws were myriad: inferior beat selection, including several shockingly limp productions by Dr. Dre; songs such as "30 Something" and "Beach Chair" made jokes about the rapper's advancing age (now 37) even easier for his detractors; and, most importantly, Jay-Z's own suddenly awkward delivery.

For the past five years, Jay-Z has been slowly losing the rhythmically precise flow and phrasing that he built his reputation on. Where his voice was once a deep, commanding monotone that occasionally hushed to a whisper or stretched out to a holler for emphasis, the past five years have seen his delivery increasingly slip into a whiny high register, resorting to the whispery approach for entire verses. Worst of all, he's no longer consistently in the pocket of the beat, falling behind it or accenting only the most obvious rhythms with his flows.

So American Gangster is being sold as redemption from its predecessor and, more than that, as a "concept album" inspired by the Denzel Washington movie of the same name that opened in theaters last week. But Jay-Z's attempt to sell it as an art record is hard to swallow; less because it's a Hollywood tie-in than that its subject matter--the rise and fall of 1970s drug kingpin Frank Lucas--is such a commercially savvy move. Although his street-hustling past in Brooklyn has long been an integral piece of Jay-Z's image, those stories have taken up less and less of his albums since his classic 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt. When he was taking a drubbing from fans and critics for rapping about his jet-setting current lifestyle last year, he had to have noticed that rap's biggest sellers (T.I. and Young Jeezy) and critical darlings (Ghostface Killah and the Clipse) alike were trading heavily on a resurgence of drug-dealer chic.

To his credit, Jay-Z stays true to his concept album aim, even if it's sometimes to American Gangster's detriment. It opens with several dark, dusky midtempo songs, and the first sound of Jay-Z's voice occurs more than two minutes into the album, following a tedious prologue-dialogue from the movie, a wearisome voice-over, a prayer spoken by his longtime girlfriend, R&B superstar Beyoncé. And even an early lyrical highlight, "No Hook," is marred by one of the sloppiest vocal performances of his career, as he stumbles behind the beat and crams syllables into the meter. Jay-Z prides himself on composing rhymes in his head with no pen and pad, walking into a vocal booth, and knocking out a whole song on the first try. But "No Hook" and several other tracks on American Gangster would've benefited greatly if he'd swallowed his pride and just done that second or third take. His wordplay is dense, and perhaps more complex than ever, but, for the first time, Jay-Z's lyrics look better on paper than they sound on record.

A large part of Jay-Z's hip-hop dominance is his ear for production and his ability to reinvent himself with newer, hotter beats. In 2000, he backed away from the established production lineup of Timbaland, DJ Premier, and Swizz Beats that helped craft his late-'90s blockbusters in order to work with up-and-comers such as Just Blaze, Kanye West, and the Neptunes-who powered most of the hits from the second half of his career while becoming A-list producers in their own right. But since 2003's supposed retirement send-off, The Black Album, Jay-Z has taken fewer chances on new producers, sticking with the Neptunes and Dr. Dre well past their creative peaks, something that helped kill Kingdom Come.

American Gangster benefits from new blood without departing from the familiar names in Jay-Z's Rolodex. Over half of the songs were produced by fellow rap moguls Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jermaine Dupri, although both bring lesser-known co-producers along, notably Diddy's new incarnation of his legendary Hitmen production squad, now with Sean C. and LV, and Dupri's talented right-hand man, Chicago rap veteran No I.D. Both teams defy their leaders' reps for slick pop-rap, lacing the album with blaxploitation-era soul samples to mirror the movie's '70s time line. Still, the Hitmen's ornate but low-key productions on the first half of the album can't help but underwhelm compared to Just Blaze's bombastic soul-sampling on past albums like the 2001 classic The Blueprint.

But as American Gangster charts the rise of Frank Lucas, and Jay's own vague first-person drug kingpin narrative, climaxing with the celebratory, horn-driven single "Roc Boys," the album finds its legs, hitting its stride just as the titular gangster reaches his downfall. On AG's final nonbonus track, "Fallin'," Jay-Z gets to detail the tragic denouement that most gangster movies depict but few gangster rap albums bother to mention, punctuating it with wall-breaking film references: "They applaudin', they screamin' at the screen/Damn you fucked up,' like your favorite movie scene/ Godfather, GoodFellas, Scarface, Casino/ You seen what that last run did to De Niro." Shawn Carter's been a law-abiding executive for too long to go out in the kind of blaze of glory he raps about on American Gangster. But if he keeps making albums that pale next to his legendary initial run, his legacy is in danger of a long, slow fade to black.

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