Though he hasn’t been completely out of the public eye, or ear, there hasn’t been much Jay-Z to go around lately. Sure, he was featured on Pharrell and Jay Electronica tracks in 2020 and popped up on Kanye West, Nipsey Hussle and Jay Electronica records this year, on the way to this weekend’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. For all of those mentions, though, we’d only gotten about 15 minutes of Hova rap and rhyme time in three years.
For the soundtrack to first-time director Jeymes Samuel’s bloody Spaghetti Western update, “The Harder They Fall,” Jay-Z helped turn the revenge-driven horse opera into something pulp fiction-y. With him in the saddle as the accompanying album’s curator and co-executive producer — along with Samuel, who not only produced and played guitar but co-wrote all the tracks — the various-artists-driven “The Harder They Fall” soundtrack makes up for all the Jay-Z we’ve been missing by allowing his voice, literally and figuratively, to flow freely across the expanse of its 15 tracks.
As curator and artist, Jay-Z makes a killing on “The Harder They Fall.” In a season where Shawn Carter has operated more as a businessman (the Monogram cannabis line), pitchman (for Tiffany’s with Beyoncé) and activist (for prison reform and racial justice issues), “The Harder They Fall” could seem like just one more in a line of worthy distractions and noble causes.
But “The Harder They Fall” feels like the album fans have been waiting for since 2017’s “4:44,” whether he’s always visible in the driver’s seat or not. If Jay’s not hitting the links on the hauntingly cinematic “Guns Go Bang” — a Kid Cudi collaboration — with a clear, cutting rap, he’s lending his talents to Jamaican vocalist Koffee as her soundtrack’s song’s co-writer, showing off his recently discovered taste for various tones of the reggae rainbow.
Rough, clacketing reggae suits Jay’s voice to a ‘Z’ on the chest-thumping “King Kong Riddim,” with Jadakiss, Conway the Machine and BackRoad Gee. Going back-in-the-day on his rhyme, Hova raps about being “raised by wolves and the crack…. and the Chicago Bulls, then,” before riffing about Tiger Woods and being paid in full, all to the repetitive click of a single guitar string. On a cut so very Eric B & Rakim-meets-Augustus Pablo, Jay-Z goes on about “speaking patois” and “Jamaican connections” with Kingston funk and fluency. Jay-Z’s co-write on the film’s title track, with an effortlessly cool Koffee, is an FX-squiggly brand of hypnotic lovers’ rock with quiet background-vocal “whoa-ohs” and puncturing rat-tat-tat rhythms. Rather than come across like a cultural appropriator, Jay-Z the writer sounds right at home with roaming Jamaican musicology.
Less reggae-riffic, but twice as scene-setting, is the expansively orchestrated “Guns Go Bang.” While Kid Cudi’s handsome AutoTune is gently caressed by the song’s ascending French horns, the Ennio Morricone-like swelling strings and open, atmospheric chords of “Guns Go Bang” offers Jay-Z space for his crispest, frankest and most emotional rap since “4:44.”
It is right here where you miss full-blown Hova more than ever — especially Jay’s whispered parts, where he draws the listener close — so much that you’ll promise to buy a Tiffany’s bracelet if only he’d make an entire album of raps just like this. Maybe highlighting a song about guns at a time when the national dialogue is most in a panic is wrong, but this “Guns Go Bang” is a shining moment.
As a curator of new music, too, Jay-Z joins Samuel in finding and/or commissioning winningly cinematic songs from an array of hitmakers. While CeeLo Green offers his own soulful, river-deep-mountain-high epic with “Blackskin Mile,” Seal brings a stammer, a scream and more raw energy than he’s shown in a decade to his Motown-like “Ain’t No Better Love.” Alice Smith, a shockingly underrated blues-jazz singer-songwriter of the highest order, goes for a sinewy, impressionistic ballad, “Wednesday’s Child,” and scores.
And while Jamaican-flavored tracks from a variety of sources — including dancehall master Barrington Levy on a buoyant “Better Than Gold” — hold the heart of “The Harder They Fall,” no non-Hova track does it better than Mailian actress-singer Fatoumata Diawara and Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Black Woman.”
Famously a longtime companion to Rohan Marley (one of Bob’s sons) and a devoted acolyte of all reggae sounds, Hill brings gruff, elastic vocals well-suited for the supple chord changes and sumptuous rhythms of “Black Woman.” And she hasn’t sounded this clear and cutting since the ’90s of “Miseducation.” When she spits “They buried my career and promoted my peers to spite me,” in that rough rasp of hers, while recalling her own life and loss, she also captures the blood and bile of the film with gusto.
Oscar prognosticator talk has Jay-Z possibly scoring an Oscar best song nomination for one of his song contributions to “The Harder They Fall” — which might put him in contention right alongside Beyoncé’s closing-credits song, “Be Alive,” from the Will Smith-starring “King Richard.” While that possible battle royale gives the marrieds something else to hype, let’s pause to admire Jay-Z’s way with expressive cinematic song and curation. Not withstanding the more adult themes of 2017’s “4:44,” it’s not since 2007’s “American Gangster,” really, that Jay-Z has sounded so grand.