American Shill

American Gangster the album is not the soundtrack to American Gangster the film. Jay-Z came up with the idea for the CD after watching the movie about Harlem heroin dealer Frank Lucas. But the album isn't about Lucas; it's about Jay. Get it?

Pandering, reactionary, and megalomaniacal, the disc should serve as adequate proof that Jay-Z is the most overrated American rapper. Ever. See, American Gangster is not about the man Jay is now. It's about the man Jay was a long time ago, the man he's been telling us about since his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt — the man who dealt drugs. Okay, Jay, we got it. Enough already.

The concept for the album was a promising one. Jay saw an advanced screening of American Gangster a couple of months ago and then proceeded to write a batch of songs, each based on a scene. We understand how the film could inspire him. It's first-rate — much closer in quality to The Godfather than to Scarface — and speaks to the blurred moral line between drug pusher and drug enforcer. The film's subject, Frank Lucas, has one hell of a story.

But by focusing on his own, surely exaggerated tale, Jay turns the whole project into a clichéd mess. He didn't choose this life, this life chose him, he tells us on the album. His coke is a brand name like Pepsi. Most important, his junk is really good. "Heroin got less steps than Britney," he raps on "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)." "That means it ain't stepped on, dig me?"

Essentially Jay saw a movie and wished it were about him, so he decided to make an album about himself, just like he has done his entire pompous career. Sure, he's got a great flow and a strong work ethic, plus — Memphis Bleek aside — he's a great judge of talent. American Gangster contains a few hot tracks, and some songs in Jay's catalogue will likely stand the test of time. But he's not the greatest MC ever, as MTV judged him last year. Not even close. Placing Hova alongside Biggie Smalls, Nas, and Wu-Tang Clan on the list of the greatest rappers is ridiculous. They were personalities; they had stories.

Jay has little charisma and only one story, the one about how great he is. One of his main claims to fame — how he spits lyrics without writing them down — is dubious. This is not Scribble Jam, after all. Bragging about not writing down lyrics is like Albert Pujols boasting he simply goes to the plate and swings. That's cool, but wouldn't he be better if he took batting practice?

Great artists evolve. Jay regresses. His last album, Kingdom Come, was less "street" than his others, and he shilled passionately enough in its promotion (for HP, TNT, and Budweiser Select) to make John Mellencamp or Jessica Simpson blush. But at least he was acting like who he was. He's the freaking CEO of Def Jam, for God's sake.

Kingdom Come was a relative commercial and critical failure, however, and Jay panicked. And so, rather than do what great artists like Bob Dylan, Wu-Tang Clan, and John Coltrane did when everyone thought they'd lost their minds — that is, not giving a fuck and continuing to do it anyway — Jay has done a 180. He's returned to crack music.

It's not subtle. He's even got a song about all the ignorant shit on his new album. It's called "Ignorant Shit," and it begins with a faux-defiant statement: "Ya'll 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-provokin' shit/Ya'll question whether he falling off/I'ma really confuse ya'll on this."

You can almost smell the pandering. The song doesn't really call to mind "Big Pimpin'," or pimping of any sort, actually. Because, when you debase yourself for money, it's not called pimping; it's called prostitution.

Perhaps Jay should pretend to retire again, and take some time out for introspection. In fact it sounds like the seeds of self-criticism might already be sprouting in his mind. Speaking to XXL recently, he had some perhaps personally prophetic things to say concerning Frank Lucas: "He did [hustling] all the way correctly. The only thing he didn't do was leave. 'Cause when you get that much money, there's no hiding it. When the guy selling you the stuff is like, 'Yo, chill out, you gotta leave,' you gotta leave, man. You gotta break out. C'mon, man, now you're being bad. That's gluttony. God is going to punish you at this point."

Wise words, Jay. Wise words.

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Ben Westhoff
Contact: Ben Westhoff