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American Gangster - Jay-Z

Oct. 27 2008, Published 7:07 a.m. ET

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HOVA RETURNS Jay-Z's latest

By now, the back story of this record is fairly well known: Jay-Z, comfortable in retirement and CEO-dom, finds inspiration in an early screening of Ridley Scott's American Gangster and emerges to record an album based loosely on the film. Upon hearing this news, fans and journalists everywhere mess themselves with excitement—until they remember his first comeback album, last year's Kingdom Come, which, let's face it, was worth its weight in crap. The stakes were unimaginably high for hip-hop's premiere MC, but, thankfully, Jay-Z delivers an album that hits as hard as nearly anything he's done to date.

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Executive-produced by Jigga and industry bigwig Antonio "LA" Reid, American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella, Nov. 6) employs a large stable of producers, both acclaimed and anonymous, to sculpt an eclectic array of tracks. Both Nas and Sean "Diddy" Combs make appearances, the former to discuss the pitfalls of stardom—a tired subject, yes, but Jay's impeccable wordplay lets the track sing—and the latter to produce a stellar string of likely hits. On tracks like "American Dreamin'" and the album's triumphant standout "Roc Boys," Combs samples the soul and funk of the film's era to imbue the tunes with a buoyant, basement-party thump. Sure, it takes a lot to screw up a sample of Marvin Gaye's ultra-smooth "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again." But to their credit, Combs and Diddy avoid joining rap's mounting mob that increasingly eviscerates such tunes—and in the process they manage to breathe fresh air into its lungs.

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