American Gangster is a concept album not merely "inspired" by Ridley Scott's heroin flick, but a musical reconstruction of Jay-Z's past life as a dope slinger, mirroring and resonating with the iconic Frank Lucas. Moral ambiguity, champagne, rises, falls - it could all make for a swell artistic mélange, and Jay-Z sure is certain it does. But at this point all we really want is the old Jay-Z who had more interesting things to talk about than good credit scores and picking out dinnerware sets with Beyoncé or whatever it was he was rapping about on last year's Kingdom Come.
Nobody is particularly excited about whether Jay's concept succeeds, and fortunately so, because the album has only the most tenuous of parallels to the film. Rather, this should be considered Jay-Z's comeback album; gone is his geriatric flow and yawn-inducing lyrics from last year, replaced by a snarling, sophisticated rhyming that doesn't approach the young hustler of his '96 debut Reasonable Doubt but remains captivating and relevant. At the start of the album's first single, "Blue Magic," Jay-Z presents a menacing dealer's manifesto laid over a steely Neptunes beat. In four minutes and 12 seconds, Jay-Z easily bests every word he's rapped in the past year at least, sounding eager to play the anti-hero instead of the executive: "Blame Reagan for making me to into a monster, blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra, I ran contraband that they sponsored, before this rhymin' stuff we was in concert."
He proves equally brassy and dexterous on the jubilant "Roc Boys" (meant to represent the fleeting moments of fame and pleasure in the drug game, if we're still keeping track of this concept album stuff): "Let your hair down baby, I just hit a score, pick any place on the planet, pick a shore, take what the Forbes figured then figure more, 'cause they forgot to account what I did with the raw, pick a time, let's pick apart some stores, pick a weekend for freakin' for figure fours..."
Even if such lines are only highlights from an otherwise lyrically decent album, it's hard to recall instances of such nimbleness even during Jay-Z's best years. Though while Jay-Z has regained his mouth, it sounds like he left something of his ear behind. Normally a man with a canny appreciation for phenomenal beats, Jay-Z let Diddy's production squad produce most of the album, and they served him a chintzy sampler pack of '70s soul sounds that often fail to complement his lyrical vigor. It is perhaps a conceptually appropriate decision, evoking the faded-glory-fallen-dealer mythos and letting Jay-Z's storytelling take the forefront, but it still smacks of dullness from a man whose words are usually backed by the musical bravado of Just Blaze and Kanye. And yet, a pretty-good Jay-Z album in 2007 is more than enough. Fans, take solace; the king of rap is not yet deposed. Concerned mothers, start fretting; music about dealing drugs is interesting again.