Try as you might, there's no knocking Jay-Z's hustle. So what if he's no longer president of Def Jam? So what if he's mostly irrelevant? So what if there are more literate, talented, and entertaining rappers dropping science out there? Unfading swagger, shameless self-mythologizing, and a willingness to pimp goods luxury and mundane have elevated Shawn Corey Carter from drug-dealer status in NYC's Marcy housing projects to the penthouse-level, tabloid-photo socialite stratosphere: He's a celebrity brand unto himself whose albums, TV ads, Madison Square Garden concerts, and guest verses are mini-events. On last year's American Gangster — released in conjunction with the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe film of the same name — Hova conceptually bent the space-time continuum to his will, smushing his '80s and '90s dope hustling exploits against Frank Lucas' in the '70s. The album's lush, velvety textures sell it as strongly as Jay's calm, cold-eyed confidence, even if the rhetoric — give or take a handful of killer punch lines — is ultimately imitative of his earlier, more gripping work. One gets the sense that he's cunningly repeating himself while pretending he isn't. His belief that he's a living legend, it seems, is enough to make it so — for now, anyway.
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