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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Jay-Z, Chris Brown and more...

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2007

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Jay-Z, “American Gangster” (Rock-A-Fella) ***

Jay-Z’s comeback after a three-year retirement with last year’s “Kingdom Come” fell far short of expectations — and rap mogul apparently was paying attention to those who said so. So for his 10th solo album, he casts aside the Cristal-fueled CEO life he glorified on “Kingdom Come” and instead embraces the urban crime world of “American Gangster” with a set of songs that serves as a companion (but not a soundtrack) to the new Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe film. Jay-Z (real name Shawn Carter) informs us that “I partied for awhile/ Now I’m back on the block,” and that “I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris” — although it’s a bit of a stretch to equate the “downfall” of “Kingdom Come” to the demolition of “Gangster” protagonist Lucas’ heroin empire. Nevertheless, the creative move puts Jay-Z back on the kind of familiar and solid street turf where he thrives — and with company that helps to elevate his already potent game. Sean “Diddy” Combs co-writes and co-produces a half dozen of these 15 tracks. The Neptunes and Just Blaze hop on a pair each, and the performing guests include Jay-Z’s girlfriend Beyonce and MCs such as Nas, Lil Wayne and Beanie Sigel. Old school soul samples from the Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, the Dramatics, Curtis Mayfield and others propel musical tracks such as “Blue Magic,” “Party Life,” “American Dreamin’ ” and “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is) ...” (some of which display the flair of onetime Jay-Z protege Kanye West), while spare cuts like “Pray,” “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” and “No Hook” display the easy confidence that always gave Jay-Z’s braggadocio its cruising altitude. Thematically tight and rendered like there’s something (Jay-Z’s reputation?) at stake, “American Gangster” shows the rap veteran can still pick and hit his target.


Chris Brown, “Exclusive” (Jive) ** 1/2

On his sophomore album, the followup to 2005’s self-titled double-platinum effort, 18-year-old singer Chris Brown neither reinvents himself nor simply recasts his debut. Instead, he delivers a long (18 tracks) batch of new material on which he steps up as a co-writer on eight of the songs and holds his own amongst a formidable group of collaborators that includes Kanye West, will. i.am. T-Pain and OutKast’s Big Boi, plus hot producers such as the Underdogs, StarGate, Sean Garrett and Swizz Beatz. The many cooks do sometimes muddle the sonic soul/pop/hip-hop soup in this 21st century New Jack ride, and pruning a few tracks would have made for a tighter listening experience. But there’s enough evidence of growth — particularly on songs such as “Kiss Kiss,” “Picture Perfect,” “Damage,” “Nice” and “Get At Ya” — to show that Brown on a decidedly forward trajectory.


Agnostic Front, “Warriors” (Nuclear Blast) — The lucky 13th album from the politically minded hardcore veterans.

Angels & Airwaves, “I-Empire” (Geffen) — The second release from former blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge and company nods to the season with an instrumental rendition of “Star of Bethlehem.”

Barenaked Ladies, “Talk to the Hand: Live in Michigan” (Shout! Factory) — A concert CD and DVD taped in June at the DTE Energy Music Theatre.

Garth Brooks, “Ultimate Hits” (Pearl Records/Big Machine) — Three new tracks grace the semi-retired country star’s two-disc compilation.

Cassidy, “B.A.R.S.: The Barry Adrian Reese Story” (RCA) — The third album by the Philadelphia MC includes guest spots by Bone Thugs-NHarmony and Eve, among others.

Dion, “Son of Skip James” (Verve Forecast) — This low-key blues set features renditions of songs by Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Robert Johnson and, of course, the titular Mr. James.

Little Big Town, “Place to Land” (Equity Music Group) — The John Mellencamp-endorsed country quartet wrote 10 of the 12 songs for its third release.

Loverboy, “Just Getting Started” (Rock Star Music) — The Canadian rockers’ first new album in more than a decade follows the Eagles’ latest as a Wal-Mart exclusive.

Paul McCartney, “Memory Almost Full (Deluxe Edition)”

(Hear Music) — With a record-breaking divorce settlement pending, the ex-Beatles expands his latest release with outtakes and a live DVD.

Monster Magnet, “4-Way Diablo” (Steamhammer/SPV) — The stoner rock favorite delivers its first new music in four years.

Nas, “Greatest Hits” (Columbia) — The outspoken New York rapper’s former label beats his next album (due Dec. 11) with this overview of his first 12 years of recording.

Soundtrack, “American Gangster” (Roc-A-Fella) — A pair of new tracks by R&B singer Anthony Hamilton presides over a period set that also includes songs by John Lee Hooker, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers and Public Enemy.

Sigur Ros, “Hvarf/Heim” (XL) — The Icelandic avant rockers take stock with this two-CD set of unreleased and acoustic material.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Solos, Sessions and Encores” (Epic/ Legacy) — This latest posthumous dip in the Texas guitarist’s ouvre collects collaborations with the likes of Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, David Bowie, his brother Jimmie Vaughan and onetime girlfriend Lou Ann Barton.

Robin and Linda Williams, “Radio Songs” (Red House) — A collection of the duo’s performances from Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” shows.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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