Rap's Grateful Dead? Hova? Young? The No. 1 MC of all time? None of the above. Jay-Z's most appropriate title is currently Most Overrated Rapper. Ever. American Gangster, his reactionary new album, should serve as adequate proof of his overblown grandiosity.
The concept for the record was a promising one. Jay saw an advanced screening of the film American Gangster a couple months ago, and proceeded to write a batch of songs, almost all "based" on a scene from the Denzel Washington drama.
It's easy to see how the movie could inspire Jay. The real-life subject of the film, Harlem heroin dealer Frank Lucas, has one hell of a story — he went from being a driver to globe-trotting drug kingpin to plea-copping snitch — and the movie speaks to the blurred moral line between drug pusher and drug enforcer.
Unfortunately, though Jay mentions Lucas a few times, the overarching story on the album isn't Lucas'. The narrative focuses on the same ol' drug-dealing Jay-Z we've been hearing about — in glowing terms and with little self-awareness — since his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt.
In the process, then, he has turned his American Gangster project into a mess of clichés. From "Pray," we learn that he didn't choose this life, but that this life chose him. On "Blue Magic," it comes to light that the feds were after Jay, perhaps because his junk was of such high quality. "Heroin got less steps then Britney," he raps on "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)." "That means it ain't stepped on, dig me?"
The thing is, Jay hasn't been a real street hustler for years now. The guy's the freaking CEO of Def Jam. So why fall back on that old dime-bag bravado, especially when you have little new insight into the game? Naming the CD after the movie, it seems, was more an exercise in product placement than a real artistic statement.
Great rappers evolve. Jay regresses. His last post-"retirement" album, Kingdom Come, was less "street" than his others, and he shilled passionately (for Budweiser, HP, and TNT) in its promotion. But at least he was acting like the corporate giant he'd become, and he even sounded psyched about it. "I'm so evolved, I'm so involved/I'm showin' growth, I'm so in charge, I'm CEO-in'," he declared on the album's title track.
Kingdom Come was a relative commercial and critical failure, however, and Jay panicked. But rather than not giving a fuck and continuing to follow his muse, he turned a 180. He's returned to crack music.
The shift isn't subtle. Instead of rapping about growing up, he's gone back to chicks and drugs. You can hear his pandering to lowest-common-denominator topics on tracks like "Ignorant Shit," which begins with a flip-flop that would make John Kerry proud: "Y'all niggas got me really confused out there. I make 'Big Pimpin'' or 'Give It to Me,' one of those, you held me as the greatest writer of the 21st century. I make some thought-provoking shit, y'all question whether he falling off. I'm-a really confused, y'all, on this."
Other egocentric rappers like Kanye West and the Wu-Tang Clan routinely manage to address more interesting issues without sacrificing swagger. Kanye's flow may be second-rate, but he speaks honestly to self-doubt and his personal history. Wu-Tang, meanwhile, has created its own language, and its new album, 8 Diagrams, sounds like a David Foster Wallace novelization of a martial-arts movie.
Besides the lack of diversity in his songs, Jay has another dubious habit: He's long bragged about how he spits lyrics without writing them down. That's impressive, but this is not Scribble Jam. Going off the top of your head leads to lazy, repetitive topics.
In the end, Jay-Z's rapping talents are overshadowed by his megalomania. Either he should take some time out to come up with new subject matter, or he should retire — for real this time.
Want more? Read the review on American Gangster at All Shook Down