Rap's Grateful Dead? Hova? Young? The No. 1 MC of all time?
None of the above.
A more appropriate title for Jay-Z is Most Overrated Rapper. Ever. With the release of American Gangster, his second post-retirement album, it's time to clear the air. Jay-Z has fallen off. Perhaps he was never really on.
American Gangster went from conception to shelves in about two months, illustrating Jay's career-long tendency to rush out songs that aren't artful. He's long bragged about not putting his words to paper before he spits them, and sure, his freestyling ability and flow are first-rate.
But this is not Scribble Jam. 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 BP?
More disturbing is that Jay panders to his audience. On his last album, Kingdom Come, he ruminated on his monied, corporate lifestyle. But the disc didn't live up to commercial expectations, so he's returned to the stories about drug dealing that informed his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt. "This is the ignorant shit you like," he raps on "Ignorant Shit."
There are hot tracks on American Gangster, and the production is first-rate. (Diddy's return to form with his producers the Hitmen is especially impressive.) In fact, this could have been a great album. Jay had a chance to explore the life and thoughts of the American Gangster movie's subject, Harlem heroin dealer Frank Lucas. Instead he chose to cover the same ground he does on all of his albums: himself. How great he is. How rich he is. How everyone wants to be like him. (See accompanying pie chart for the gory details.) So, if you're keeping score, that means that over the course of his career, we've now heard Jay say he's the best in 1,006 different ways.
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Expressing self-love is nothing new in hip-hop, but the genre's greatest performers have always spoken to larger issues. Biggie Smalls, Nas, Ice Cube and Wu-Tang Clan—a quartet that truly belongs on the list of the greatest rappers of all time—did this. More recently, Jay was even surpassed by his protégé Kanye West, who is pushing hip-hop subject matter in new, more interesting directions.
Ultimately, Jay-Z is a good rapper whose talents are overshadowed by his megalomania. He should retire—for real this time.
Topics discussed by Jay-Z onAmerican Gangster
BY BEN WESTHOFF
How he's like a gangster, both the black and Italian kinds: 30%
How he can afford great seats at boxing matches: 5%
How he's been a competent drug dealer since CHiPs was on television: 25%
How, back when he was a drug dealer, he used to be really well-dressed: 5%
How he learned math on the streets: 5%
How he's so strong you would think he's on steroids: 5%
How he wouldn't even consider snitching: 5%
How his house is great and his testicles are large: 20%