American Gangster is considerably better than 2006's lackluster Kingdom Come, if only because it returns Jay-Z to his criminal comfort zone. However, it still falls short of his finest material. The disc feels more like the sort of Hollywood production that inspired it—a star vehicle assembled by skilled craftsmen—than the visceral tuneage that established his reputation.

The album has a unifying sound thanks to astute blaxploitation-era sampling, not to mention his elastic wordplay, delivered with typical gravitas. As a result, there's only one real stiff here: "Hello, Brooklyn 2.0," in which Hova is undermined by a misbegotten Beastie Boys bite and too much Lil Wayne. But he coasts during the likes of "Party Life" and "Ignorant Shit," and his rhymes on "Say Hello," which address rap critics, are far too defensive.

Jay-Z's more convincing throughout the funky organ-drenched "Success," co-starring former sparring partner Nas, and "No Hook," in which he boasts that he doesn't need grabby melodies to mesmerize listeners, then proves it. That's the way a real American gangster does it.

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts