The story goes, 38-year-old Michael Jordan looked like the old Mike during his private 2001 training sessions in Chicago. He was killing young NBA players — and supposedly a high school phenom named LeBron James, as well — and letting them hear about it every step of the way. Allegedly, it all came to a screeching halt when MJ shit-talked the wrong guy: a young Bulls forward by the name of Ron Artest.
Depending on which story you believe, Ron either broke Jordan’s ribs in a fight, or just through regular basketball contact. Whatever happened, the damage was done. The Jordan that fans got to watch for two years as a member of the Washington Wizards wasn’t the guy we remembered, and he certainty wasn’t the guy who dogged Artest so bad that Artest responded by breaking his ribs.
There were fleeting moments in Mike’s comeback where you could see remnants of the Michael Jordan. He dropped 51 on the Hornets late in 2001 in a dazzling display of tongue-waving mid-range jumpers and shit-talking. There’s also the storybook should-have-been game-winner in the 2003 All-Star Game.
But, there were dismal moments, as well, including Mike snapping his 866-game streak of scoring 10 points or more in a game. In December of 2002, Mike played 40 minutes against the Raptors, but could only manage a meager two points. Those two points tied his career low from an abbreviated 12-minute outing against the Lakers a year earlier. He might have looked the same, but Mike wasn’t Mike.
In many ways, Mike and Jay Z have always felt synonymous with each other to me, not only because Jay constantly reminds us with his own comparisons, but also because of the arcs of their careers and the status they hold in their perspective arenas. Their comebacks from retirement echo each other, as well, and, if Kingdom Come was Jay’s two-point game, then his 51-pointer was undoubtedly American Gangster.
Much like Mike’s secret Chicago training sessions, American Gangster has a legend of its own. Supposedly, Jay was so moved by the Denzel Washington film of the same name that he took to the studio and conjured up an album while the movie played on a loop at all times. Eventually, he pitched to the studio behind the film that this album should be the soundtrack, but they turned him down. Within weeks of that denial, a HD-quality version of the movie leaked online, and Jay released the album on his own.
It was a return to glory for the then, ironically, 38-year-old rapper. Armed with the necessary inspiration to return to his drug-dealing past, he delivered a conceptual album about the story of an innocent boy turned drug kingpin, and grabbed the listener’s hand and guided them along every step of the way.
Sonically, thanks in large part to Diddy and The Hitmen, American Gangster sounds like Blueprint crossed with Reasonable Doubt, the two albums that undoubtedly stand atop his discography, and that results in Jay Z delivering his last classic. Yes, American Gangster is a classic. The album is a tight, cohesive and rich narrative that makes slight allusions to the movie (“Front row, fight night, see how clear my tube is? F*ck HD, n*gga, see how clear my view is?”), but is clearly rooted in Jay’s own life.