American Gangster
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

It must be tough being gifted. For Jay-Z, it wasn't enough to hold us down for damn near five summers, and then take charge of the biggest rap label around (not to mention that significant other). Seemingly inspired enough by a viewing of the current Denzel flick to record again after multiple retirements (and at a point when most heads weren't screaming for his return), Jay Hova took three weeks to lay down 15 tracks. The finished product is nothing less than classic. We knew he had more talent in his pinkie ring-sporting finger than most rappers have in their entire bodies, but damn, really fam? Still painfully nice on the mic, still making other rappers look silly, even at 37? I guess retirement can wait.

The beats that helped encourage Mr. Carter (excluding a few offerings by the Neptunes) drip with '70s soul, creating the lush blaxploitation-era get-up-to-get-down sound that Hov double dutches on. Ironically, most of these grimy sounds come courtesy of Diddy and his reformed Hitmen team. At last we get the uncompromised lyricism and vivid crime narratives some of us knew Jay was capable of, with nary an attempt at radio play. Trucking in the well-worn hustler archetype, his tales make up in introspection and wit what they lack in originality. Double entendres and diamond-denseness abound; magnificently layered lines like "I off ya on switch/Ya not too bright, goodnight/Long kiss" are a dime a dozen. He's still the all-time master of flow, using the silences as Miles Davis does. Among uniform dopeness, the showstopper has to be the Nas-assisted "Success," where the two rap heavies trade tales of the (not so) good life over forgotten Com-collaborator No ID's Godzilla of a track. I haven't been this excited by a single song since "Kick in the Door" hit. Like, whoa.