'You leave ‘American Gangster’ longing for more don’t-give-a-fuck attitude'
Not 12 months have elapsed since ‘Kingdom Come’, the record that saw Jay-Z shrug off the moth-bitten dressing gown of retirement and dive back in to the rap game. The Hova’s first post-retirement record had both eyes on the crossover buck, featuring everyone from Beyoncé to Chris Martin. Jay-Z’s since cooled to it, though, admitting later that it was “maybe too sophisticated”. So it figures ‘American Gangster’, loosely based on the forthcoming Denzel Washington flick of the same name, is a leaner, low-key sort of record. That’s not to say it sees Jay-Z losing the ego – that’s not his style. For proof, clock the opening bar of ‘Pray’, where he declares himself “Mindstate of a gangster from the ’40s/Meets the business mind of Motown’s Berry Gordy”.
Alas, where ‘Kingdom Come’ was a success, if a slightly bloated one, ‘American Gangster’ is a stumble. Beneath the bluster, it feels Jay-Z is short of material, and some of the beats here – mostly courtesy of P Diddy’s producers The Hitmen – are real misjudgements: ‘Hello Brooklyn’ is an aborted attempt at a Dirty South club track that Jay-Z handles like a yuppie might handle New Orleans swampland, while ‘Party Life’ is mere sluggish ’70s soul.
Of course, there’s gold too: witness ‘Success’. Six years back, Jay-Z and fellow NYC rapper Nas were at each other’s throats. Now they’re back-to-back on a killer track, all slabs of gorgonzola mellotron atop of which the pair swear off money, cars, and fancy restaurants with genuinely pissed-off verses that burn like a fireplace full of dollars. You leave ‘American Gangster’ longing for more of this don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, but the feeling that presides is Jay-Z patting his wallet. He repeatedly tells us he’s not comparable to other rappers, but something more: a business, an industry. Better make sure he’s still got stuff worth selling, then.