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American Gangster: I don’t like it

Not the movie, which I’m sure is the next Scarface (and maybe even watchable!), but the new Jay-Z album, which is only a commercial for the movie.

First of all, I was highly disappointed by the beats by Diddy and his new Hitmen, these guys LV and Sean C, who once did a beat I kinda liked on a Fat Joe album I can hardly remember otherwise. I was willing to believe Diddy was capable of bringing the heat, because, you’ll recall, I enjoyed that Press Play album quite a bit, even though I don’t recall these two guys in particular having any tracks on it. I figured he had turned some sort of corner in his career, in which he realized that if he’s not gonna be able to rap worth a shit, he should at least spring for the best collaborators.

Obviously I was mistaken. The shit these guys are coming up with here does indeed sound like the kind of shit you’d expect to here on one of those Fat Joe albums post-whatever that song was that he had with R. Kelly, but a Jay-Z album? To the extent that these beats are worthwhile, they’re feats of wanton sampling more so than anything else. There’s definitely ’70s soul horns and what have you, if you’re into that sort of thing (and I’ve just determined that I’m not – at all), but nothing they’ve done with them is especially interesting. In particular, the drums sound like they came from one of these mail-order DVDs labeled Hip-Hop Drum Sounds.

As far as the roughly half of the album that wasn’t produced by those guys, well, I don’t like it either. That song with Lil’ Wayne that kinda sounds like a half-assed Beastie Boys knock-off, complete with Paul’s Boutique sample? It’s definitely no “99 Problems.” I’m at a loss for how it ended up track 4 while “Blue Magic” and the title track – neither of which I’m particularly crazy about either – are considered bonus tracks. I guess they didn’t fit this album’s concept as well. Both of the songs co-produced by Jermaine Dupri kinda remind me of other songs that genuinely were good ideas, but that’s about the best I could say about them.

Of course the version of the album I had didn’t have the new version of “Ignorant Shit.” Just Blaze is right in that his flip of that one Isley Brothers song that everyone and his mother used to rap over is way more creative than the rest of them. He’s also right in that it’s too bad that the other version has been floating around on the Internets and on mixtapes and what have you since forever. It kinda ruins what would have been the rush of hearing it for the first time just now. Still, you kinda wish Jay-Z had come up with something more than what he did for that last verse, about Imus.

Which brings me to this album’s other main flaw. Namely, Jay-Z’s rappin’. Now, I can appreciate the fact that Jay-Z is getting old, and old guys just can’t rap as well as young guys. But it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much here in order to compensate. Sometimes it sounds like he’s just rattling off the first few things that come into his head. I realize that’s always been a part of his process, but I wonder if he shouldn’t reconsider his process. Maybe if he actually sat down and committed pen to page, he could be that much more particular about the stuff he does end up spitting.

Also, if you notice the old Jay-Z seems a lot more touchy feely than the young Jay-Z. In several of these songs he mentions his parents and his life growing up in the awful, awful ghetto, which I suppose is fine in that it adds a bit of autobiographical detail to an album that could use something, anything. But it mostly has the effect of making his raps sound like a whole lotta excuse-making. Like that one god-awful Bone Thugs record from earlier this year. No one’s saying that growing up in a poor area isn’t a (new) miserable experience, but Jesus H. Christ. Have some balls about yourself, if only because it makes for better rap music.

In fact, my fear is that one of these days I’m gonna go back and listen to some of his older stuff, which I enjoyed at the time, and all it’s gonna be is a whole lot of, “My dad walked out on my family, and my neighborhood was full of crime and poverty. So I was left with no other choice but to deal drugs, but at least I got all of these nice clothes. Have I mentioned how nice my clothes are?” But with better beats and with better rappin’. But still. Fortunately, like most black people, I don’t listen to a whole lotta older music anyway.

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