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JAY-Z, American Gangster, Roc-A-Fella
After Kingdom Come fell short, it actually seemed like it might be a good idea for Jay-Z to step outside of the box and into a persona. Even if it was the equivalent of a studio gangster. Whatever it took to get Jigga back on track. Early buzz suggested that this is the comeback album Jay should have made. But it's not. The leadoff hitter, "Pray," confirms that the Beyonce-Jay-Z collabos have run their course, hopefully only on a professional level. We don't need to hear his girlfriend literally do what the title of the track suggests. Speaking of duets that disappoint, "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" seems promising with Lil' Wayne guesting and an inspired Beastie Boys sample... but both are annoying by the time the rhyme is done. "Ignorant Sh--" shows that Jay and Just Blaze still have no shame. Fresh off dusting off the Hammer last album, the previously untouchable "Between the Sheets"-"Big Poppa" sample makes an appearance along with Beanie Sigel. Needless to say, it feels out of place on an otherwise decent track. Among the party crashers, it seems Nas' appearance might be the only one considered a "Success." Gangster is at its best when it stays rooted in the timeframe, both lyrically and musically. The horn-driven "Roc Boys" and "Sweet" fall into that category, both produced by Diddy and the Hitmen. It's obvious what he's trying to do in "No Hook" -- mainly because he tells you in the part of the song he's dismissing. The style almost takes it back to "22 Twos," but the result are not as creative or satisfying. That was a track that needed no hook. "Party Life" contains a delivery so deliberate that when Jay actually stops at the end of the verse to repeat and brag about the run-of-the-mill rhyme he just dropped -- "I sport so much fly sh-- / I should win an ESPY" -- you can only shake your head. Remember when he would just let the fans and critics marvel at his lyrics? No need to bring your own highlighter, Hov. Inexplicably, "Say Hello" steps outside of the '70s for a moment to take on Al Sharpton ("I don't approve"), Jena 6 and cursing in hip-hop. Not quite subjects that Frank Lucas had to deal with. "Blue Magic" takes it back to '80s Rakim. Not sure why it and the title cut are considered bonus tracks. Probably because they don't fit in with the chronology of this scene-by-scene concept album, which as is starts off with a dream (the Marvin Gaye-blessed "American Dreamin'") and closes with a fall (the appropriately named "Fallin'"). We've drawn comparisons to Michael Jordan's comeback when referring to Jay-Z's exodus from retirement. In his second year, it's apparent at times that we're in the company of a legend (particularly since he gives us a look at his playbook by printing the lyrics in the cover). But the glory days are over, and ultimately he falls just short of the playoffs. So we're actually going against the grain and giving this one a downgrade from the last one. We keep hoping he'll get one more shot to go out at the same level as The Black Album, but who knows if that's even possible anymore. No one wants to see him go out in Hanes commercials with Kevin Bacon.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

Other Jay-Z reviews
JAY-Z, Kingdom Come
JAY-Z, The Black Album
JAY-Z, The Blueprint 2
JAY-Z, Unplugged
JAY-Z, The Blueprint
JAY-Z, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
JAY-Z, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter
JAY-Z, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life
JAY-Z, In My Lifetime... Vol. 1
JAY-Z, Reasonable Doubt

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