Jay Z — American Gangster

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Jay Z is sort of an interesting character. He’s really one of the first mega successful rappers to make it to old age while still maintaining relevance. 16-year-old hip-hop fans know who Jay Z is even if they don’t listen to him because the guy is ubiquitous as an artist and businessman. You can’t deny what he’s been able to do. I don’t need to rattle off Jay Z’s career highlights, but the man has 21 Grammys and more #1 albums than anyone not named John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

That said, he’s 45 years old. Hip-hop, especially on the entertainer’s side, is a young man’s game. With so much of the genre changing rapidly, it takes constant re-inventing along with your traditional braggadocio and edge. Jay Z is still making music and still moving albums, but critical reception has been tepid at best since 2003′s The Black Album, which was to be his musical finale.

There are always exceptions.

Enter American Gangster, Jay Z’s 2007 concept album inspired by the Ridley Scott film of the same name. Like any good album, there’s a certain mythology behind it. Legend has it Jay Z got his hands on an advance print of the movie (starring his buddy Denzel Washington) and was so inspired that he played the thing on loop in the recording studio while reeling off a full album in just a few weeks.

While The Black Album was victorious and in-your-face triumphant, American Gangster felt more like early Jay Z. Stylistically and aesthetically, the project felt almost like a sequel to songs like Can’t Knock The Hustle, portraying Jay Z as a struggling artist and hustler as opposed to the celebrity diving into the Scrooge McDuck money pile we’ve since gotten used to.

It’s a concept album in that it follows the story arc of a gangster protagonist, but it’s loose enough that it allows Jay Z to play around. While the film’s storyline is the late ’60s, the album makes mention of 21st century life, such as calling out Al Sharpton or the Don Imus incident. I think this type of freedom is necessary here. Not all concept albums have to be strict, and American Gangster does well just to provide inspiration and framework for Jay Z to regain some of his creative footing.

While I guess there’s something to be said for luxurious ramblings that feel like diatribes against his own listeners, American Gangster feels fresh in so many ways.

Whether it’s the way “Blue Magic” opens with a clip from 1931′s Frankenstein before segueing seamlessly into ’80s references:

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored”

Or the inventive rhyme schemes of “No Hook”:

“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”

And:

“Skinny n — a, toothpick, but, but I do lift
Weight like I’m using ‘roids
Rolls-Royce keep my movements, smooth while maneuvering
Through all the manure in the sewer that I grew up in”

The production does Jay Z a lot of favors here, which isn’t something we’ve always been able to say. While Sean “Diddy” Combs is given an associate producer credit, Jay Z has admitted he essentially executive produced the album alongside him. The production credits also feature Jay Z mainstays like Just Blaze and No I.D., as well as Jermaine Dupri and The Neptunes. The production makes this album as much as the lyricism does.

This may be the most well-produced Jay Z project since The Black Album. And yes, that includes Watch The Throne.

While recent albums like The Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail put me, and many critics, to sleep, it’s interesting to note that Jay Z can always put himself in someone else’s shoes to regain some of that glory. Nothing like finding yourself by pretending to be someone else.