Jay-Z justifies rap reputation

November 6, 2007


Jay-Z is fascinated by the criminal underworld, and he was among the first in line to see Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” catching a screening months before the movie opened and collected $43.6 million at the box office last weekend.

In fact, the 37-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur was so inspired that he rushed into the studio for a three-week burst of creative energy that yielded 15 tracks allegedly inspired by specific scenes in the film.

Yet while the superstar rapper’s 10th studio album shares the movie’s title and includes snippets of its dialog, it’s not an official soundtrack. And if the album is a strong effort that’s certainly better than last year’s “Kingdom Come,” which heralded the end of his much-hyped three-year “retirement,” it’s hardly the artistic equal of the film, much less classics of the genre such as “The Godfather” or the novels of Iceberg Slim.

Most disturbingly, the album lacks the moral core of the movie, which is a two-pronged look at the corrupting power of capitalism from the parallel perspectives of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts, the cop who brought him down (Russell Crowe). Roberts’ noble ethics are nowhere to be found on the disc, nor is there any consideration of the pain that Lucas’ Blue Magic dope wreaked on his own community, which he tried to buy off with Thanksgiving turkeys.

The film “connected with me on an emotional level,” the former Shawn Carter recently told the Los Angeles Times. “It was so similar to the neighborhoods that I came up in, and things that happened there ... It’s really about the emotions of that life. I would take an emotion that I felt was important, or things that resonated with me ... and make a song.”

Jay-Z feels so strongly that the new songs are linked as part of an overall story arc that he’s not making the disc available for download on sites such as iTunes. “As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles,” he says in the press materials.

It will be interesting to see if the rapper maintains the purity of his vision by performing the album’s songs in order and in its entirety when he appears at the House of Blues tonight as part of an intimate five-city club tour to draw attention to the release.

(The $100 tickets to the Chicago show reportedly sold out in 30 seconds, but fans shut out of the House of Blues can watch him talk about the album on an episode of “VH1 Storytellers” premiering Thursday night.)

Once you listen to this alleged concept disc, however, it’s hard to hear what Jay-Z is going on about: The story is hardly fresh, gripping or even particularly coherent. Hova has been rapping about the gangsta life since launching his career in the mid-’90s, and if a few lines this time around can be traced to the fictionalized account of Lucas’ rise and fall — minus his betrayal of the people who made him rich — the themes are so played out and one-dimensional in his hands that they’ve become tired cliches.

“I didn’t choose this life, this life chose me ... Sweet taste of sin, everything I’ve seen made me everything I am,” the star raps in “Pray,” echoing every drug dealer who’s ever been busted. Yeah, right, tell it to the judge.

Lyrically, the artist is much more entertaining when he’s just cracking wise, ripping on the Jacksons or cussing up a storm while mocking the fallout from the Don Imus scandal. But the music is by far the biggest source of the disc’s appeal.

Producers Jermaine Dupri, the Neptunes, No I.D. and Just Blaze all make appearances on a few tracks each. But shockingly the lion’s share of the credit is due to Sean “Diddy” Combs, who goes a long way toward redeeming a career that had become a sorry punch line. Taking some cues from Kanye West, he crafts six intoxicating jams that dig deep into ’70s soul for inspired samples from forgotten heroes such as Rudy Love & the Love Family, Little Beaver and Larry Ellis & the Black Hammer, as well as the far more familiar Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.

Over these powerfully seductive tracks, Jay-Z one again justifies his reputation as one of the most agile and free-flowing rappers that the genre has ever produced. His undeniable voice fuels the disc’s exhilarating joyride — and you’ll only notice the bumps in the road if you bother to think too deeply about what he’s saying.

American Gangster
3 stars