Review of Jay-Z’s “American Gangster”

[Originally published in the Boston Herald on Nov. 5, 2007]

Jay-Z’s second post-retirement release is a concept album inspired by the hustler biopic “American Gangster.” And make no mistake, this is inspired. Whatever remnants of mediocrity the God MC displayed on his last album, “Kingdom Come,” have been shaken off in this journey back to the streets.

All of the necessary frameworks are in place: movie snippets weaved in between songs (it’s really hard to go wrong with Denzel Washington saying just about anything on your record); well-timed samples from the Beastie Boys and Marvin Gaye; a guest spot from Lil Wayne that works; a Nas-Jigga one-two punch on “Success” that proves to be a New York knockout.

And the rap mogul clearly called in the cavalry on the production end of things. The album’s backdrops are a mixture of grimy bangers and stirring soul canvases courtesy of Just Blaze, The Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, DJ Toomp and even sample king Diddy, who acts as co-producer on several tracks.

Most importantly, Jay-Z’s razor-sharp flow has returned. “Ignorant Sh*t” with fellow Roc Boy Beanie Sigel is the Jigga of yore. So is the content of about 80 percent of the album, which might end up as one-dimensional gangster glorification in a lesser rapper’s hands, but becomes self-revelatory art in Jay-Z’s able grip.

The end result is a huge sigh of relief for true hip-hop fans and faithful Hov followers. True, there are moments when the 37-year-old rapper seems to be searching for his lyrical stride rather than hitting it, as on “Pray” and lead single “Blue Magic,” one of the weaker songs on the album. But those moments are rare.

Jay deems the total package “Black superhero music” on “Roc Boys,” and he’s justified. Next time around, Hov will be back to untouchable status, easily embarrassing fake rappers in a single verse. Download: “Say Hello.”

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