Jay-Z & r & & r & American Gangster & r & & r & 5 Stars & r & & r & American Gangster towers above all other 2007 hip-hop releases, unimpeachably reinstating Jay-Z as Best Rapper Alive.

Last year, fans fretted when Jay's uninspired retirement-breaker Kingdom Come signaled an ill-advised turn toward "adult-contemporary."

For whatever reason, Jay-Z (the king of cross-marketing) throws commercial viability out the window and kills the ghost of his infamous "dumb down for dollars" quip with 15 tracks of raw soul and death-proof breath control. No formulaic pop hits here -- "No Hook" has no hook; on "Party Life," Jay pauses in a moment of clarity and admires Diddy's gorgeous molasses-speed beat. "I don't want it to stop... for real," he says, encouraging the listener to "get into your comfort zone" before commencing unconscious freestyle rhymes, riding the track into four-minute territory.

Vigorously challenging and inimitably effortless, American Gangster is an American classic.


Download: "Success"


The Flying Club Cup

4 Stars

Zach Condon is still a boy genius. While Beirut's latest album, The Flying Club Cup, doesn't continue the oft-praised Balkan influence of Gulag Orkestar -- Balkan's first -- Condon trades in his marches militaires for airy orchestral pop. The French phrase is no accident -- the album wears its Gallic influences on its sleeve.

Featuring string arrangements by Owen Pallett, who you might remember as handling such matters for, oh, say, the Arcade Fire, tracks like "Forks and Knives" lilt and soar on Stradivarius wings. Condon's voice takes similar flight, with his signature vibrato often lost in the mix as just another instrument. But you never listened to Beirut because Condon was an amazing lyricist -- you listened because a year and a half ago Pitchfork Media compared him to Neutral Milk Hotel.

Jeff Mangum he may not be, but The Flying Club Cup is still a great sophomore album from a talented 21-year-old. Cue the bitter envy.


Download: "Guyamas Sonora"

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