4 out of 5 stars

Jay-Z just can’t stay out of retirement, which is actually a good thing, given the quality of his latest album – American Gangster.

On first listen, this album falls a bit short of most expectations because it is not a dance floor-oriented album. It has good beats, but none that catch your ear and make you feel like dancing is an inevitable, involuntary reaction to the record. Not only that, this album is more relaxed lyrically, with none of his trademark brash burns on other rappers. Jay-Z’s self-aggrandizing lyrics aren’t typical gangsta rap, but are instead more subdued. This calm power doesn’t translate as well to hits and hooks, so the hooks on this album aren’t nearly as catchy and the album lacks the kind of standout singles Hova is known for.

Nearly every track, however, is a shout out to Jay-Z’s influences, getting beats from the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye and lyrically citing Berry Gordie, the Jackson 5, Al Green and Guns ‘N’ Roses – and these influences are heard on the instrumentation throughout the album. The guest spots by Lil Wayne and Nas shine especially bright among all this name-dropping.

Additionally, the album is excellently produced. Its beats are expertly accented by instrumentation of a brilliance that is rarely heard on a rap album. The horns on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)” are excellent, yet surprisingly subtle. This album is similar to Kanye West’s new album in the way the instrumental accents to the beat and lyrics make it a much more fulfilling listen. But do not think that these two albums sound similar, for Jay-Z’s album is much more of a laidback listening experience and definitely would not work in a conventional club context.

Still, the key to this album is remembering that it is based off the movie American Gangster, and Jay-Z does a marvelous job of taking the sophisticated cool of Frank Lucas and translating it to music and lyrics. So, while some may be disappointed that the lyrics are not as ghetto fabulous as his other work, it is the quiet sophistication of Jay-Z’s rags-to-riches success story that is the lyrical secret here.

Ultimately, any album that can combine the instrumentation and sophistication of American Gangster with the hooks and hard-hitting beats of Jay-Z’s earlier works is something special.