The music landscape was much different a decade ago. The South was dominating radio play but with a “Where Are They Now?” selection of artists such as Hurricane Chris and Gorilla Zoe. Little Brother had the underground wondering if The Getback would be their last album. Lupe Fiasco’s sophomore album was the most anticipated of the year. Coming off the poorly received Kingdom Come, the general public thought Jay-Z was now Jordan in a Wizards jersey. Needless to say, nobody wanted another album from an aging rapper with nothing left to talk about. Well, nobody but me. My favorite Jay-Z iteration is mafioso Jay-Z. Swag rap Jay-Z is cool because he raps so effortlessly but mafioso Jay-Z is calculated and lyrical. Since I prefer the former, not the latter, a few of your favorite Jay-Z albums don’t rank as high on my list. Due to reaching the pinnacle of hip-hop’s elite, I thought my favorite version of Jay-Z was gone forever. Fortunately, the prospect of making an album that served as the soundtrack for a major motion picture rebooted him. Although this plan didn’t pan out, Jay-Z ended up making one of his most lyrical and impactful albums of his career.
The album is a journey. It starts with a song called ‘Pray,’ and ends with a song called ‘Fallin’.’‘Pray’ is the young man looking into the game, looking into the perils and all the corruption and the things that he has to go through. But this is the only thing he knows. He has little faith and little hope because this is what he sees and [drug dealing] is his only way out.
– VH1 Storytellers
Before a trailer was even released, American Gangster (the movie) had Oscar season buzz. The film touted a star-studded cast with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as leads. A stable of lesser-known actors who would become future stars with Josh Brolin, Idris Elba, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. A few prominent rappers with Common, TI, and RZA, Last, seasoned director Ridley Scott. Jay-Z, being the baller ass rapper-mogul he is, was awarded the opportunity of an advanced screening. The movie awaked thoughts and emotions he stored away due to his current lifestyle. This prompted him to rush to the studio to work on an album that’s inspired by the movie. A few ideas turned into nine tracks, those nine tracks turned into fifteen and American Gangster was born. Jay-Z originally envisioned the album as the soundtrack to the movie but despite the 70s soul samples, Ridley Scott still wanted more of an unfiltered 70s sound. Although Scott decided to go a different direction with the film’s soundtrack, Jay-Z still decided to align American Gangster’s release with the movie in November of 2007.
American Gangster, the movie, motivated Jay-Z. During the recording of this album, he had scenes from the movie playing in the studio. A few of these scenes ended up on the album itself. I can’t read his thoughts but I’d like to believe he originally walked away from the game because he had nothing left to say (Hence: “What More Can I Say” of the Black Album). This might be the reason why Kingdom Come seemed so lifeless and uninspired.
In Denzel’s Frank Lucas, he saw a bit of himself. This gave him the perfect opportunity to tell a story he didn’t have the opportunity to tell before he retired. He saw a black man progressing to the top of society using the tools of the only trade he knew. These memories make American Gangster an unofficial sequel to my favorite Jay-Z album, Reasonable Doubt. With the return of Jay-Z’s mafia raps, came the top-notch skill Jay-Z exhibited back in 1996 as well.
…mind state of a gangster from the 40’s
Meets the business mind of Motown’s Berry Gordy
Turned crack rock into a chain of 40/40’s…
Over Sean C & LV production, Jay-Z frames these memories of his life to narrate the rags to riches story of this concept album. Where this album differs from its thematic predecessor is taking the street tales and examining them through a broader viewpoint. Reasonable Doubt was more of an outward look of his experience’s in the drug game but American Gangster processes those inner feelings.
One of my favorite tracks on the album, “No Hook”, expresses this maturation:
I’m so fa sho, it’s no facade
“Stay outta trouble”, momma said as momma sighed
Her fear: her youngest son be a victim of homicide
But I gotta get you outta here momma, or I’mma die …inside
And either way, you lose me momma so let loose of me
This album then focuses on the path to success and the struggles of maintaining that success.
I used to give a shit, now I don’t give a shit more
Truth be told I had more fun when I was piss-poor
I’m pissed off, and is this what success is all about?
A bunch of niggas acting like bitches with big mouths
All this stress, all I got is this big house
Couple of cars, I don’t bring half of them shits out
All of this Ace of Spade I drink just to piss out
I mean, I like the taste, could’ve saved myself 6 hours
But the most unique song on the album is “I Know”. Jay-Z has had a few concept tracks before with “Meet the Family” and “Song Cry” (depending on who you ask) but he has never taken the opportunity to address the effects of the drugs he once sold.
But this album is all serious. Jay-Z does take time to detour from his introspection to deliver a few braggadocious raps with songs such as “Party Life” and “Ignorant Shit”. Even with reverting back to his swag raps, Jay-Z still remains on his game.
And this is why I love American Gangster.
AJ and I have discussed the career of Jay-Z and paralleled it to Usain Bolt. He’s the greatest of all time because he still won the race by jogging. He has only had to sprint a few times to win. With American Gangster, Jay-Z breaks out into one last sprint to show he still has it. There are a lot of good/great Jay-Z albums between Reasonable Doubt and this but few have painted the lyrical pictures Jay-Z delivered with his debut. American Gangster will always be special to me because it’s the last hoorah for my favorite rapper. It helped solidify a career that had absolutely nothing left to prove.