"Y'all n*ggas got me really confused out there. I make 'Big Pimpin' or 'Give It to Me,' one of those -- that had me as the greatest writer of the 21st century. I make some thought-provoking sh*t -- y'all question whether he fallin' off." When you've built up a back catalog of eight studio albums and walk the earth as one of the biggest, most high-profile artists of the '90s and 2000s, you're bound to get some mixed signals from those who pay attention to you. However, the jury did not take long to reach a verdict on 2006's Kingdom Come: the consensus on it (as a major fall-off) was as swift and strong as the consensus on Reasonable Doubt (as a classic). Once used copies of Kingdom Come became easily attainable for less than two dollars, it was apparent the next Jay-Z album might not be so anticipated. He'd need to get some fresh inspiration and make some corrective maneuvers.
Fortunately, both came unexpectedly -- rather than by desperate force -- after he saw an advance screening of the early-'70s period piece American Gangster, which played a direct role in nine of the songs on this album of the same name. While several tracks connected to specific scenes are also rooted in productions trading in the regal grit that made up so much '70s soul, the album is not a straight narrative, broken up by tracks like the boom-clap of "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" (produced by Bigg D) and the glitzed-out pair of "I Know" (a half-icing Neptunes layer cake) and "Ignorant Shit" (where Just Blaze transforms the Isleys' quiet storm staple "Between the Sheets" into a high-gloss anthem). Combined with the tracks laced with '70s soul -- including six produced by Diddy & LV & Sean C, one by Toomp, and two by a newly forged partnership between Jermaine Dupri and No I.D. -- it all adds up to an album that seems nearly out of time, at least when it comes to the years spanning Jay-Z's career, without resembling a true regression. "Success," for instance, takes its lead from The Black Album's "Public Service Announcement," with blaring organ over heavily weighted drum knocks, yet despite the likeness, it's one of the album's highlights. And while Jay mentions American Gangster and protagonist Frank Lucas directly, and intersperses some tracks with dialogue, the connection does not overshadow the album. It's not like he's yelling "Shaft's Big Score 2K7!" or "Leonard Part Six, Part Two!" It's all as natural as Scarface riffing off Scarface.
And that might be the most common complaint about the album -- it's really just another case of Jay-Z being Jay-Z, albeit with different presentation. Unless you know each verse from Reasonable Doubt through Kingdom Come, it might sound like he's dealing with no variation on well-worn themes, the exact same thoughts and emotions that make up older tracks about his past as a drug dealer -- the rise, the arrogance, the conflictedness, the fall, and all stages in between. When he's in the right frame of mind, though, as he is throughout much of the album's duration (it is a bit sluggish in spots), he's as affective with his subject as Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye were with romance. Just as key, the level of insolence and spite on display here is as high as it has ever been. "I got watches I ain't seen in months/Apartment at the Trump, I only slept in it once/N*ggas said Hova was over, such dummies/Even if I fell I land on a bunch of money" has more of those qualities than all of Kingdom Come. One could say that's not really saying much, but regardless of context, this is a very good Jay-Z album. He is, for the most part, doing what he has done before: what he does best.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo