November 6, 2007

My Gut Reaction: Jay-Z - American Gangster (November 6, 2007)

Since Shawn Carter seems to be dead-set against me actually finishing his goddamn discography, I present to you American Gangster. While not meant to function as the actual companion to the Ridley Scott film (although Def Jam is also releasing the real soundtrack the same day as this disc, and it doesn't contain "Heart Of The City"! What the hell?), the pretense of this project is that Jay watched the film, loved it, and started writing a concept album inspired by both his own past and the exploits of the main character of the film, the titular American gangster Frank Lucas. Which, in blog world, means that Jay-Z was promising to return to his Reasonable Doubt roots, since that entire disc was actually about selling drugs, in case you had caught his MTV reality special about bringing water to Africa and completely forgotten that Roc-A-Fella Records started as a way to get Shawn away from slinging coke.

As to whether he succeeds or not, only time will tell. I tried my best to not hear any tracks off of this disc before its release, which was easy, since the radio stations in my area seem to feel that Jay-Z's pinnacle was "Can I Get A...". Of course, I heard the teaser "Blue Magic" online, and I find myself in the minority when I say I kind of liked it, while every other hip hop blogger on the planet has gone on record as saying that it sucks balls. I found it pretty entertaining, and sometimes, that's all music is supposed to do, entertain the listener. I know that's strange to read, coming from a guy who joyfully trashed Curtis Jackson's first and second mainstream albums and took great pride in trashing U-God's debut album, but the counterpoint to that argument is that there wasn't really anything entertaining about any of those three CDs, so get off my back already.

Anyway, before this writing I had only heard the first single, the "Roc Boys" track, and I sought out the remake of "Ignorant Shit", but this is the first time I'm hearing anything else, including the collaboration with his former sworn enemy Nasir Jones.

This better not suck.

This was co-produced by that guy who starred in Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls? That may explain why this sounds like a bad movie trailer instead of the usual rap album intro that Shawn is known for. This is pretty godawful.

Of course Beyonce would appear on this disc somewhere! Thankfully, this song is actually pretty damn good, so you can rush those nightmares of "Hollywood" out of your mind.

Apparently Puff Daddy had his hand in producing six songs on American Gangster (including this one), and Jermaine Dupri arrived with two. It seems like Jay is trying to evoke memories, not of Reasonable Doubt, but of the bag of doucheknuckles better known as In My Lifetime Volume 1. And why would Shawn reference Depeche Mode? Pretty sure they weren't running shit with Frank Lucas, but I can't confirm that: I'll be sure to ask Martin Gore next time I see him.

My wife may appreciate the Beastie Boys sample, but I question the sanity of the heads at Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella, who approved the Most Overrated Rapper In The Game Lil Wayne (that's his birth name) to appear on two of their projects this year (the other being Kanye West's Graduation). I don't have to hear this one again, at least until I'm forced to finish the true write-up appears. And what the fuck does this have to do with American Gangster?

The beat is ass, but Jay actually sounds very hungry here. The following is a short list of producers that Jay should have used to evoke Reasonable Doubt: DJ Premier. Ski. Clark Kent. Jaz-O. Ski. Ski. Ski, dammit!

Okay, Puffy, this beat is actually pretty hot. Feel free to tell those two cats that actually made these beats for you that they did good. Kanye is a complete nonfactor here, for anyone who gives a fuck about Kanye.

This is pretty boring. However, it sounds like it was left off of The Blueprint; probably could have taken the place of "Jigga That N---a" seamlessly.

So Chad Hugo is still missing, huh? I'm shocked to report that Pharrell is actually capable of providing interesting beats without the help of his much more talented counterpart. This isn't bad.


I was always a fan of the original track (even though it was produced by Just Blaze), which leaked to mixtapes after it was left off of The Black Album, since I always liked the part in the Isley Brothers song "Between The Sheets" where the beat switches completely, and it was about fucking time somebody sampled that. That said, this song is good, but I prefer the original, where Jay uses the final verse to praise Beyonce instead of denouncing his critics, and the goofy original chorus of "Excuse me miss, fuck your name/ Can you come (and) give me some brain?" is much better than the one that appears here, a random string of curse words that sounds like Shawn impersonating Slim Shady on Tourette's. I'm also nonplussed by Sigel: Freeway may have sounded better over this beat. And what the fuck does this have to do with American Gangster?

Good thing Jay-Z marketed this as a "concept album", since that term can be used as a way to deflect criticisms like this one: this song sounds fucking terrible.

Has Jay graduated to co-opting Marshall Mathers lyrics? Nasir robs Shawn at pearl-handled gunpoint of the instrumental, and pistol-whips him for good measure. But as a total package, I prefer their collabo on Nas's last album more.

I've never heard Bilal be so annoying before. Jermaine Dupri's two tracks, including this banger right here (yeah, I know, I'm shocked too), were co-produced with Chicago stalwart No I.D., whom I'm just glad is getting high-profile work. This song is meant to portray the end of the film, so for everyone that didn't run out opening weekend, congratulations. You just saved nine bucks.

The following two songs are listed as "bonus tracks", which is a ridiculous concept, considering track 14 was the first single from American Gangster, but whatever.

I'm pretty sure that Pharrell didn't have to jack the chorus from En Vogue's "Hold On" for this track, but maybe I'm wrong: maybe he lost a bet. Don't mind me: I like the old En Vogue songs, and only hope that they were well compensated for the jacking. Putting aside all of that shit, I still like this song, and fully appreciate how Jigga sneaks in an anti-George Bush sentiment into a song that is supposed to invoke the 1980's.

The other Just Blaze track, which has much more bounce than anything else on this damn album. It sounds alright, but once again: Ski! What the fuck, Shawn?

THE LAST WORD: While I did my best to avoid listening to the disc before today, I couldn't help but read other reviews, and I'm a little shocked at the consensus that this album is great. It really isn't. That said, it's still decent, and the great songs (notice the use of plural?) are better than the entirety of Kingdom Come, so I'll be spinning American Gangster for the rest of the year, at least. And for full disclosure's sake, I have to admit that, while finishing up the ending paragraph and rewriting the intro, I've been listening to "Fallin'" on repeat.



  1. Man. I really, really, really, really didn't want to hear about this record again or from him for that matter. Now I am forced to. I hate, hate, hate, hate you Max.

  2. pretty obvious you read the reviews and kept them in mind as you wrote this review..

    also i thought the beat on 'say hello' was abit better than "fucking terrible"

  3. Max, I share your sentiments about "Success". Jay tried to out-swagger Nasir but God's Son ripped this track to shreds. Awesome track.

  4. Is Kanye the one saying "We in the house!" at the end of the hook?

  5. Regardless of what you may think, it IS possible to read reviews but still form your own opinions while listening to the album. And the beat is still fucking terrible. I stand by my statement, although a year from now, who knows what I'll think about it.

    Aaron, yes, that's Kanye's vocal. Told you he was a nonfactor.

    And you don't really hate me. Hurry up with the letter M!

  6. "Sweet" is dope! I abhor "I Know" and I agree with you on "Party Life". "Hello Brooklyn" represents the dude who moved to New York from the South (like Frank Lucas did when he moved from SC to Harlem) which is why Weezy was on the hook and in the song...too bad the track sucks balls.


  7. havent heard this yet other than "success"

    at all...i almost picked it up yesterday for like 9 bucks or so but didnt.
    maybe when the price drops some more, or if i get a large paycheck soon...

    keep up the good work

  8. I'd recognize that nasal whine anywhere.
    Forget 50, maybe Kanye will outsell Jay?

  9. My theory on this album is Jay realized how shitty Kingdom Come was and he knew he had to bring some better shit, like, yesterday. And it is definitely much better than that last garbage album - probably ranks with RD & BP as some as his best stuff.
    But more importantly, here's my suggestion for you to review next: the EPMD catalog. Classic material and some of their stuff STILL smokes a lot of hip-hop coming out today (although some of it DOESN'T - i.e.:"You Better Stop Homes, You Had Too Much To Drink" - which is why I think the reviews could be pretty funny.) We all know about the greatness of the beats, but then you've got Parrish Smith as your classic meat-and-potatoes, no-bullshit, just-basic-metaphors, kinda-boring-but-still-passable MC, and then Erick Sermon - a man who once rhymed about playing Scrabble with his dad and the shit still sounded ill - and you have one of the best groups of all time. EPMMFnD man. Later.

  10. I actually have no doubt that Jay will be outsold by Kanye, if only because American Gangster doesn't have any obvious radio singles, whereas the stations around my way now play that fucking "Good Life" song ad nauseam. Thankfully, his next single is supposed to be "Flashing Lights", which I still love after two months, so maybe I'll calm down soon.

    Everyone, thanks for commenting, I greatly appreciate it. And Dart, thanks for the info: at least the song "kinda" makes sense, but it still sounds godawful.


  11. This is the first review I've read that didn't like "Say Hello." Dope write-up, but that song is the shit. I agree with you about Lil' Wayne, though. Putting him on anything is a mistake.

  12. whoever wrote this shit about jay's album is retarted. this album is sick and has all different kind of hip hop music put on one CD. if you do not like this CD u do not know what hip hop is. so if your hatin on Jay cauze hes got wayyyyyy moree cake thann you take it easyy

  13. Whipsspot - thanks for the comments! However, it's clear you didn't actually finish the post, since I wrote that I would be listening to this disc for the rest of the year, something that people only do if they LIKED it. Thanks for your patronage!

    And Heavy D - your name is fantastic!

    oldmajor, I'll take the EPMD request under advisement - I know where my Erick Sermon/Def Squad stuff is, but I would have to dig for the EPMD joints. It is a good idea, though.

  14. Best thing to come out of this album is that I found out No I.D. is getting some work.

    Common still wishes he got beats from him.

    Maybe you can review a flashback album in Nine's "Nine Livez", or how about some Beatnuts, or some more Cormega, or Prince Paul's Prince Among Thieves?

    You know, give some good shit some exposure(sorry, I just can't actually talk about a Jay-Z album, it disgusts me too much. You gotta be like 10 years old to like this stuff).

    Sorry . . . I'm done ranting.

  15. "if you do not like this CD u do not know what hip hop is."
    That's real talk Max, you no-cake-havin, real-hip-hop-not-knowing, retarded person that has written about a bazillion different comprehensive reviews of hip hop albums yet still, somehow, remained ignorant. Heed that shit dun.
    Whipsspot keep reprazentin da "real?"!
    Yes yes. I'm working on "M" but I'd rather flame than think.

  16. Just another thought after a couple spins of this album - you are right on the money with the comments about most of this having nothing to do with the ostensible "concept." It's pretty much just Jay flowing over some suprisingly good beats. And that's not a bad thing, but it's like how the Black Album was supposed to have a big concept about his early life and it ended up just Jay doing his usual thing over the beats. And the Nas track really illustrates the difference between them as MCs - Jay is a guy who flows, who rides the beat, and when he gets in the groove it's great, but when he doesn't (like here) it's not so great; Nas is a writtens guy whose stuff is more like Kool G Rap - not as "melodic" but just packed with shit that usually has more depth and content to it. It's not always about who's better, you just have different styles. (although U-God DOES suck - the new Wu mixtape is not a good look for him, as usual)

  17. oldmajor, thanks for the heads-up. I had downloaded the mixtape (it being free and all, I would be a fool not to), but never found the time to listen to it: at least now I know when to tune out.

  18. grabbed this...
    liking it so far (save Hello Brooklyn is ehhh)

    not bad, not great.
    surprised by the beats though

    and max...this is the 18th comment on this post. you're going major!

  19. Thanks, mason. And as usual, every comment is appreciated, whether good or bad.

  20. that was friend logged in his gmail and his name came up on the comment.
    but whatever
    keep doing you max!

  21. I completely disagree with almost this entire review.. Jays lyrics were complete FIRE throughout the whole fukkin disc, The beats were all AMAZING (though some laid back chill tracks)

    Fallin was probably my favorite track next to success, the beat is amazing and the chorus is infections and jay-z's rhymes are absolutely fantastic on this track.

    That being said, this record is near CLASSIC.

  22. It's always great to know something a music blogger does not. "Roc Boys" was sampled from Menahan Street Band's "Make The Road By Walking" which is also the name of their album (incidentally, it's THE BEST).
    "I Know" is awesome.
    "Roc Boys", again, is AMAZING. Thanks, MBS.
    "Blue Magic" tried to get in my brain, but something didn't work out and i ended up despising it.

  23. Personnaly, I thought this was Jigga's best album since "Reasonable Doubt". For me, his lyrics and subject matter here are much better than usual. Also, I was suprised at just how good the production work was considering the fact I'm not exactly a big fan of Jermaine Dupri and P Diddy as producers.

  24. I would have seriously considered this album a buy even a listen if it contained "Heart of the City"... and hell no i am not buying "Blueprint 1" even if it becomes cult status because i heard that album so many times and became dumbfounded to what it really was about.. anyway to not waste any more of ur time going on... i just fucking love "Heart of the City!!"

  25. 100 for the diamond chain.... CANT YOU TELL THAT I CAME FROM THE DOPE GAME!!

  26. Ignoring the troll comments, I love the conversation on here. Pity I'm four years late, ha. But for what it's worth, I actually really enjoyed this album; Kingdom Come's subject matter only makes sense when it grows on you (takes a while), and Blueprint 3 is flooded with terrible features.. other than Hello Brooklyn 2.0, there aren't any shitty features. Bilal is annoying.. but doesn't damage a good piece. Say Hello is bad, but catchy as hell (so is Blue Magic to me), and in my opinion, No Hook is a lost charm for Jay. No one looks at it; it's the 2007 Never Change.

  27. Lol my first impression of the song "American Gangster" was that it was an inferior version of a 90's Ski beat.
    Overall though, I thought this was pretty solid for this far into Jay's career. I actually like the beat for Hello Brooklyn, within the context of the album. It's filthy as fuck.
    I couldn't even sit through the Blueprint 3 once, it was that terrible. I mean, sampling that "Young forever" song??? Faaarrrrrrkkkk no thank you.
    Keep up the great reviews Max!!!

  28. Was one of the first to hate when it comes but just realized today that album is really good. Sit and get some and listen back to back KC to this. k/