With his criminally overhyped, thuddingly anticlimactic comeback album, Kingdom Come, Jay-Z offered listeners insight into the surprisingly dull life of a thirtysomething hip-hop mogul with nothing to prove and nothing much to say. The album's disappointing sales suggested that fans found the view from the boardroom infinitely less compelling than the street-corner perspective of Jay-Z's early work. On American Gangster, the hustler-turned-executive finds inspiration in the Ridley Scott film of the same name, the lush atmosphere of '70s soul, and the bracing grit of blaxploitation.
American Gangster stumbles a bit in its Diddy-dominated first half, but it locks into a slinky retro nighttime groove with "I Know," which breathes new life into the heroin-seduction song with one of Pharrell's mile-wide space-disco grooves. And the album sustains that groove until the final track. Meanwhile, "Blue Magic" ruthlessly deconstructs the Neptunes' sound until all that's left is organ vamping, spare percussion, and vintage Jay-Z braggadocio. On the similarly minimalist "Success," Jay-Z and Nas reaffirm their potent chemistry over No I.D.'s sleazy funk. Gangster makes explicit the implicit subtext of so much street rap: that studio gangstas are generally more influenced by the contents of their DVD collections than their personal memories. Judging by this surprisingly strong return to form, Jay-Z might want to consider spending less time in the office and more time at the movies.