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This guy still exists
Over the past few months, I’ve seen this prevailing rap-blog-critic consensus emerge around American Gangster: that it’s actually not that great of an album, that it only got good reviews early on because it wasn’t Kingdom Come, that Jay still sounds old and clumsy and not even totally certain he still wants to be rapping. And, granted, some of the album’s luster has faded. Jay-Z shouldn’t need some bullshit concept-album excuse to revisit all his old drug-talk; if he wants to talk about killing people, he should just interrupt his own played-out maturity storyline and talk about killing people. The concept-album stuff doesn’t hold together and never did, the beats are maybe too wrapped up in 70s-soul signifiers to scan as anything other than expensive throwbacks (great expensive throwbacks, but still), and the self-justifying arguments on “Ignorant Shit” are thin and unconvincing, not least because he hasn’t done much to piss off Al Sharpton in the past few years and because he doesn’t really need to be making excuses for himself. And he hasn’t done himself any favors since the album’s release, leaving Def Jam, mulling over whatever other rich-guy moves he can make, and, according to Peedi Crack, dropping everyone on Roc-A-Fella. Even with all that, though, I still really like American Gangster. Its tracks still bang luxuriously, its cinematically ominous moments still forbid, and the eventual fuckups on “Fallin'” still sound like something Jay has spent a whole lot of time thinking about. Jay seems bent on doing something unprecedented: maturing into a modern-royalty mogul figure without sacrificing any of his up-from-nothing swagger and his artistic vision. Maybe that’s not the path I’d ideally like to see him follow, and maybe it’ll prove impossible, but it’s hard to imagine him pulling that off more successfully than he did on American Gangster. Still, nothing on American Gangster except maybe “Blue Magic” captured Jay’s old egotistical virtuosity like “Ain’t I,” the new Jay track that hit the internet a couple of days ago.
Extenuating circumstances make it hard to enjoy “Ain’t I” as the amazing piece of evil precision it is without wondering what it could’ve portended. “Ain’t I” is going to be on the next DJ Clue mixtape, and so Clue shouts over the whole thing the way Clue always does; one of my favorite moments comes when he shouts out my mixtape guy, Amadou on 14th Street. But one of the things Clue shouts at the beginning of the track is this: “Off that Blueprint 3.” Clue has been tight with Jay-Z for a long, long time; he’s still one of the only four people to go platinum on Roc-A-Fella, along with Jay, Kanye, and Cam’ron. He should know what he’s talking about. Nobody had heard one word about any potential Blueprint 3 project before Clue yelled it, but American Gangster came just as abruptly after a New York Times announcement, so word of an album like that could conceivably just leak out like that in the form of a cryptic Clue quote. But a day later, details emerged: There’s no Blueprint 3, and the track just an unreleased thing from the sessions for Timbaland’s Shock Value album. (Shock Value, I shouldn’t need to point out, would’ve been a whole lot better with this song.) So: No Blueprint 3, as far as we know. Clue apparently had no idea what he was talking about. And that sucks, since “Ain’t I” is a serious banger.
First off, the track, has one of those epic Timbaland beats that just barely seems to exist anymore. It starts off with undulating percussion and elastic synth-bass and nothing else, and it would be pretty great if it stayed like that throughout. But Timbaland keeps layering on new sounds: hyper-compressed crunchy rock guitars, sonar pings, huge Terminator-soundtrack synths. Then, two thirds of the way through, Timbaland throws in this ridiculous breathy beatbox breakdown, and an unperturbed Jay never loses step with the rest of the song, staying right on it as Timbaland builds it back up gradually. It’s fun to imagine Jay’s face freezing the first time a giggling Tim played it for him, a scene I’ll imagine every time I hear another Jay/Tim track after Fade to Black. Second, no one on earth rides Timbaland beats the way Jay-Z does. On “Jigga What Jigga Who,” Jay was all over the thing, keeping perfect pace with those clustered snares. But since then, he’s been letting Tim’s tracks breathe. He times his pauses just right and stays just off the crest of the beat, placing all his syllables in the exact right spots. Jay never indulges in gun-talk on “Ain’t I”; all his boasts are distinctly of the post-retirement variety. He talks ambiguous shit about old friends: “I took a pay cut to become an exec / So the next motherfucker can earn his paycheck / And even though these niggas talk greasy ’bout me / Ask these niggas how they gon’ eat without me.” (Given the timing, he’s probably talking about Dame Dash, not Peedi Crack or whoever.) He brags about his conspicuous consumption in ways that are supposed to make us think he’s sophisticated: “Warhols on my walls, whoa / I got Basquiats in the lobby of my spot.” And he brags about how far he is from his old criminal life while at the same time pointing out, yet again, that he had an old criminal life: “I’m in a 12-step program / I ain’t touched drugs in so long, I’m a sober man.” All that stuff can be annoying, especially when he delivers it with the cloying sincerity he maintained throughout Kingdom Come. But here, he’s his old self: haughty, uncaring, disgusted with the mere existence of any potential foes.
That egotistical sneer makes all the difference. Over one of those insanely intricate tracks that Timbaland used to make, he sounds like he’s lost no ground since his fake retirement, and that’s not something I can say about American Gangster no matter how much I still like it. As someone says in my comments section said the other day, it sounds like it’s 1998 again here. And so why can’t there be a Blueprint 3? Why can’t Jay start rapping again like all this respectability shit never happened and rap still sold records? If he keeps his egotism intact the way he does here, it won’t even matter if he’s talking about what paintings he owns. So I have to wonder if Clue’s Blueprint 3 shout really was some sort of advance-publicity hint, if there’s really a Blueprint 3 in the works and Jay is just figuring out subtle ways to build anticipation. If that turns out to be true, Jay’s even smarter than I’ve given him credit for being.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Jay-Z’s American Gangster
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z
Voice review: Nick Catucci on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse
Voice review: Selwyn Seyfu Hinds on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint
Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z’s Vol. 3 … The Life and Times of S. Carter
Voice review: James Hunter on Jay-Z’s Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life