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Jay-Z – American Gangster: A First Listen

by Travis on October 29, 2007

Every so often, an album comes a long that will have the ‘net buzzin. Last one that hopped up on the scene was Kanye and his “Graduation” album. Like wildfire, opinions and the such spread from site to site. One thing I think is wrong with today’s technology is people form opinions waaaay to fast. After one listen they tend to say an album sucks or the claim it as “Album Of The Year”. I’m guilty of myself, but lately I try to really give it a lot of listens before I form an opinion. It’s one reason I’m so damn slow doing reviews. So what I’m about to do is probably counter intuitive, but what the fuck.

The fourth quarter is always filled with highly anticipated releases. Nas’ album drops, Wu-Tang’s album drops, Ghostface, and a host of others. With the internet leaking shit before the actual release date, we all of course get to hear albums in advance. It’s just a fact of life. Sometime over the weekend (I wasn’t paying much attention), Jay-Z’s “American Gangster” leaked. Anything that concerns Jay is always going to be eagerly gobbled up by Jay “dick riders” and Jay “haters”. I’m probably somewhere in between when it comes to Jay. He has material that I absolutely love, then he has material that I can’t stand. I do understand his relevance to the game and I also understand why he can be considered one of the top MC’s currently in the game. He is kind of like the New York Yankees, you can hate on them all you want, but you still have to recognize that they are a good team. Same goes with Jay. You can hate on dude all you want, but you still can’t turn a blind eye and say he sucks on the mic. You just can’t.

Scholar at “Souled On” and I were discussing Jay-Z once and compared him to the McDonald’s of hip hop. His music is kind of a guilty pleasure among some of us. He’s not the most “healthy” choice, but damn, he is sure fun to listen to at times. As I’ve said, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Jay’s music. The man can make some great songs at times, but he can come with some complete trash other times. Him and Nas’ both do that for me. Often their albums are inconsistent with some real hip hop on them and some pop garbage fluff cluttering them as well. I was aware of Jay early on with his apperence on Jaz’s “A Word To The Jaz” and “Hawaiian Sophie” fame. Then of course you had Jay pop up on other stuff every now and then in those early years. He dropped a verse on “Show & Prove” from BDK’s “Daddy’s Home”, he did “The Orginators” that was on Jaz’s 1990 “To Your Soul” release then of course he dropped a verse on Original Flavor’s “Can I Get Open”. From then, I believe it was “Ain’t No N—a” that dropped as a single on the Nutty Professor Soundtrack that got me hooked. I picked up that “Dead Presidents b/w Ain’t No N—a” single before “Reasonable Doubt” dropped, which was a classic.

Here is how I rank Jay’s studio albums….

1. Reasonable Doubt - I don’t think you can put anything else ahead of this classic. The production, the visuals he paints with his lyrics. I don’t think there is a bad song on this album. It’s gangsterish, but beautiful at the the same time.

2. Blueprint - By the time this album dropped, I had started writing off Jay after two medicore albums, a crappy “Roc La Familia” posse album and one album that I still don’t like to this day. But with new production from some dudes named Kanye West and Just Blaze, this brought Jay back up to speed again with another “complete” album that you could bump from beginning to end (minus “All I Need”).

3. The Black Album – I know some people hate on this album, but I’ve always liked it. Maybe its all the remix albums this spawned, but I got pretty familiar with it. The original only has one song that I truly despise (“Justify My Thug”, which I do like on other versions). Not classic by any means, but a solid, enjoyable album.

4. Vol 3. Times and Life of S. Carter – I think this album exemplifies Jay’s career. Some excellent songs and some absolute garbage. I hated this album when it dropped, but I burned it (read: made a tape copy) from a friend and gave it some run in my tape deck and ended up really liking certain things from it.

5. In My Lifetime Vol.1 - This is basically the same kind of thing as “Times and Life of S. Carter”, some great music and some terrible music. This was his second album which I was fiending for after the brillance that is “Reasonable Doubt”, then both “Sunshine”, which dropped as a first single and “Who U Wit” that appeared on the “Sprung!” soundtrack made me notice that this was not the same Jay I had heard on “Reasonable Doubt”. I like both songs, but I was a little weary and of course this album gave me plenty to be worried about. He basically followed BIG’s blueprint of making radio friendly hits along with the street bangers, although Jay wasn’t up to BIG’s level at this point.

6. Kingdom Come – For a “return album”, this was highly disappointing. It’s not that its a bad album in the sense of judging albums, but its not great either. Besides “Anything” and “Hollywood”, which both make me vomit in my mouth just a little when I hear them, there is nothing on here I really hate. There’s just not much that grabs me as well.

7. Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life - I have always hated the “Hard Knock Life” track. If I never hear that crappy song again in my life, I’ll be happy. It just sucked in my opinion. There isn’t much else on this album that made me happy at the time either. He was hardcore into that Swizz Beats, jiggy garbage that was happening around this time, so needless to say this album did little for me.

8. Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse – This
has to be one of my all-time hated albums. I hate this album with a passion. It’s a double album full of garbage. This shit shouldn’t even be an EP. I have a big thing against double albums, I don’t think there is a double album out there that wouldn’t be better as a single album. Regardless this was just crap to make some money. Maybe I should sit down and try to listen to it again, but I couldn’t hear for a week from my ears bleeding so badly last time I tried it.

American Gangster

Next step in Jay’s legacy is the recently leaked “American Gangster”. I haven’t listened to the snippets. I haven’t read anything about this album since its been leaked. The only two opinions I’ve heard so far that I value is one from Scholar, who said it validated being a Jay-Z fan in his eyes again and from my boy Dino, who is calling it the album of the year already after listening to it this morning before work. This is my first time listening to it minus “Blue Magic” and “No Hook” and “Success” with Nas. The leaked version is NOT the retail version, since the retail version appears to contain 15 tracks, while the version floating around the net only has 13, but so be it. Remember, this is just my initial response, I’m writing as I listen, one run through, first impulse type thing going down here….Let’s get into it, shall we?

1. Intro Performed by Idris Elba Produced by Chris Flame for Earbrain Productions Co-Produced by Idris “Driis” Elba for HEADSHELL/HEVLAR Recordings

No “Scarface” thing to start off? I guess we have to promote the movie. I hate intros for the most part, this is just a bunch of talking with a cinematic music accompying it. It is what it is. Nothing to get you overly excited.

2. Pray Produced by DIDDY and LV & SEAN C for Grind Music/The Hitmen/Bad Boy Entertainment

I have to admit, seeing “Diddy” littering the production credits made my stomach churn. Yes, I know thats his “Hitmen”doing his dirty work, but still. The track has some nice strings and a nice beat. I’d say its a quality Jay track. The vocal sample adds to the track and adds to Jay’s lyric to paint a nice picture of whats going on. I like the track. Makes me think this album has some potential. Nice start.

3. American Dreamin’ Produced by DIDDY and LV & SEAN C for Grind Music/The Hitmen/Bad Boy Entertainment Co-Produced by Mario Winans for Yellow City Entertainment/The Senate

Seeing Mario Winans credited as co-producer already made me suspect of this track before it even started playing and once it jumps into the track, it gives me no reason to think I wasn’t right doubting it as the first 10 seconds make me cringe. Singing dominates the intro of the track, and not the good kind really. Once it stops though, I kind of like the way Jay flows and the drums on the track. Nothing really different from Jay. I’m not sure if I’m going to like this track or not. Again, it does a nice job painting a “mood”, which I think a lot of music fails to do these days. After the halfway point, I’m digging this track. Nothing spectacular, but solid. I like it.

4. Hello Brooklyn 2.0 feat. Lil Wayne Produced by BIGG D for Bigg D Entertainment, LLC.

By now if you read this blog often, you should know I’m not a big Lil Wayne fan, although I’ve gone from saying he is my most disliked MC to just being disliked, but I don’t really care to hear him all that much. Which is too bad for me, because right off the bat, we hear Weezy spitting over a Beastie Boys track that was found on “Paul’s Boutique” as one of the cuts on their “B-Boy Bouliousse”. Amazing enough, I’m really digging it. Its probably because of the old schoolness that I’m digging, kind of in the vein of “99 Problems” from the Black Album. It’s not going to be the best track on the album, but I like it a lot. It would sound dope with a system. Changes up the tempo of the album and I think its well placed.

5. No Hook Produced by DIDDY and LV & SEAN C for Grind Music/ The Hitmen/Bad Boy Entertainment

This is one of the few songs I’ve heard already. I heard it only once and I wasn’t impressed with it then. This second time, the beat still does nothing for me. Its too similar to the first two songs, but more bland in nature. Its just kind of a boring track to me. About the two minutes mark, Jay start dropping some ill verses, going off doing what Hov does best.

6. Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)… Produced by DIDDY and LV & SEAN C for Grind Music/The Hitmen/Bad Boy Entertainment

I know this track leaked early as well, but I never did check it out. So far I have conflicting reports on the track, my boy Dino went crazy for it this morning when he was texting me, saying I would love it and after listening to hip hop together for 13+ years, he has a good idea of my tastes. Eric on the hand didn’t like it, so if he doesn’t like it, I might just like this….haha. I push play and there are some fly ass horns that do sound like Just Blaze as Dino said to me. A good start. I’m digging this immediately, uptempo, like something you’d play before going out. I’m sure Dino and I will be playing this when I am back in town.

7. Sweet Produced by DIDDY and LV & SEAN C for Grind Music/The Hitmen/Bad Boy Entertainment

The beat has a nice sample that I can tell is going to be stuck in my head for awhile after this. I still kind of knock it for not varying much from the 2-3 songs on the album. That might change after a few listens and things start standing out on their own. Jay sounds a lot more confident on this album than he did on “Kingdom Come”. Regardless, I am liking this song. The sample sounds familiar, I should know it but it works well with everything. Good song, not great, but good.

8. I Know Produced by The Neptunes

This is one of those songs that I have an unfavorable opinion right off the bat. I’m not a fan of Pharrell or the Neptunes and this textbook Neptunes shit. Again, the song kind of sounds like its going through the motions as some parts of the album does. I could see this like being “Change Clothes” from the “Black Album”, it was a track I didn’t initially like, but it grew on me. After about the two minute mark, the track has warmed up to me. Still nothing mind blowing that most Jay albums have at least 2-3 tracks of that caliber.

9. Say Hello Produced by Toomp for Zone Boy Productions

A nice mellow beat starting off which I kind of like, a slight change from the rest of the album. Jay comes with a different flow as well. I’m digging this joint from the get go. I’m not sure if these tracks will show up on the actual movie, but they all have that “movie” feel to them. This track is one of my top two favorites so far. This is one of the standout tracks I expect to find on a Jay album. I’m singing along with the track toward and nodding my head furiously. This what hearing great new music is all about.

10. Success feat. Nas Produced by N0-ID for So So Def Productions, Inc. Co-produced by Jermaine Dupri for So So Def Productions, Inc.

I heard this track once as well, and while it wasn’t bad, I was expecting more out of Jay and Nas track. I also wasn’t impressed with “Black Republican” initially on Nas’ album but ended up loving it so maybe this needs to grow on me some. The second play I think I like much more than my first time hearing it, maybe it was my mood. I’m digging the beat, although I can’t help to think its missing something. I wouldn’t mind seeing it sped up a few BPM’s. Nas sounds tight on his verse, sounds like the Nas we all know and love. I’m sure this joint will grown on me as well. Its got the swagger that I enjoy coming from Nas and Jay but I still can’t think its missing that essential ingrediant.

11. Fallin’ Produced by Jermaine Dupri for So So Def Productions, Inc. Co-produced by No-ID for So So Def Productions, Inc.

Dammit, singing starts off the track. Then the beat really kicks in and it’s pretty fuckin’ nice. Digging the drums. I’ve since went from my headphones to the computer speakers. While my speakers aren’t the stock speakers, they are still not up to par with some good headphones. Yeah this shit is tight as well. The singing, which is the chorus, fits in fine with the song after hearing it a few times. I’m thinking this song is one of the better songs as well that I’ve heard thus far from the album. I like the strings that accompany the drums. It’s one of my favorites on the album so far.

12. Blue Magic
Produced by The Neptunes

I’ve heard this song a few times and have not been a fan of it at all. I’m not going to pretend like I think that will change with a listen with the rest of the album, but we shall see. I can already say that this is going to blend in with 3-4 other tracks on the album. I’m just not a fan of a lot of the Neptunes shit. Although after listening to the rest of the album, after I already said I didn’t think it would matter, it sounds included in the rest of the collection. I like the organ keys. I could go without having to hear Pharrell’s wack ass on the chorus. Kind of minimalistic in nature, beatwise, but I can deal with that, sometimes less is better. I just wish I didn’t have to hear Pharrell. It almost sounds like a Just Blaze bite, which I like, but kind of irks me. Okay, I’m changing my mind about this song now. I don’t mind it now.

13. American Gangster Produced by Just Blaze for F.O.B. Entertainment/N.Q.C. Management, LLC and Hip Hop Since 1978

This sounds like the token uptempo joint that Jay sounds good on but you haven’t heard much on this album. It’s a nice tempo changer for the album, although I think it would have been better served somewhere earlier in the track order. It’s not much different from other songs in Jay’s catalog but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The track has kind of a funk feeling to it in a sense which suites me just fine as well. The sample, the horns and the cymbals crashing, all reminds of the 70’s funk I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to as of late. Great song.

I don’t think Jay is going to win any fans with this, but this album has the potential to be one of the better ones of his career. I won’t say its as good as “The Black Album”, at least not as of yet. There are a few songs that just sound to similar to each other after my initial listen, which might bore me after a few listens, or they might distance themselves enough to make the album even better. Time will tell on that one. I’m not going to call this album of the year, I’ve only had one listen, but I will enjoy this more than a large chunk of releases this year.

Favorite Tracks

Fallin, American Gangster, Roc Boys, Hello Brooklyn, Say Hello.

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