Simon Vozick-Levinson
September 21, 2007 AT 09:47 PM EDT

A funny thing happened at the very end of my interview with Jay-Z about Kanye West’s SoundScan victory earlier this week. When I asked the ostensibly-retired rapper if he’d been recording any new music of his own lately, he just paused, chuckled and said, “I’m ready to go.” His publicist jumped in a split-second later and said we were out of time. Fair enough — he’s a busy guy. All the same, I couldn’t resist trying to parse that ever-so-slightly ambiguous reply. Why not just say “No,” if that was the answer? Could he have possibly meant “ready to go,” as in, ready to enter the studio again soon? Nah, I was just dreaming.

Of course, less than 48 hours later, I found out that if anything, my wild hunch hadn’t gone far enough, when the New York Times broke the news that Jay had already secretly recorded most of an entire new album inspired by the upcoming Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe flick American Gangster. NYC’s venerable radio DJ Funkmaster Flex debuted Gangster‘s lead single “Blue Magic” last night on Hot 97, and high-quality versions are already all over the ‘nets. So how is Hov’s first new cut since the last time he un-retired?

Pretty amazing. Consider the Neptunes-produced beat alone: Cold synth stabs anddrum-machine stutters set a perfectly sinister tone. It’s of a piece with the the minimal backdrops that the ‘Tunes cooked up for the Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury — which is to say, it’s on par with one of the best-produced rap albums of the past half-decade. And it brings out the best in Jay’s tightly-coiled lyrics. Forget that he’s now a highly-paid CEO with a comfy office. This is vintage hard-boiled poetry: “BlameReagan for making me into a monster/Blame Oliver North andIran-Contra/I ran contraband that they sponsored/Before this rhymestuff, we was in concert.” Call me callous, but there are few things I love more than hearing Jay sling those tricky internal-rhyme schemes about slinging drugs. He’s dropped plenty of vicious verses in the last few months (on T.I.’s “Watch What You Say,” Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” remix, Freeway’s “Roc-A-Fella Billionaires,” et al.), but he hasn’t rapped this nimbly about this particular morally ambiguous topic in years.

Which is probably why I’ve already seen speculation from some quarters that this is some sort oftrick on Jay’s part, a lost recording he made in his youthful prime andhauled out of his private vaults only now. I highly doubt that — among many other things, his voice has a deep, somber authority these days that it didn’t have when he was a younger emcee. But the very fact that people are constructing suchextravagant conspiracy theories to explain “Blue Magic” should tell you something about how brilliant it is. This is exactly how a returning legend should sound.

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