Words By T.C.
It’s only customary to properly greet someone upon their return from a hiatus or whereabouts unknown. Usually their arrival is overwhelming at first but things slowly turn back to normal as time progresses. On that note, let me be among those to say one thing – “Welcome Back, Hov.”
Not that he ever really went anywhere. But last year’s Kingdom Come with accounts of San Tropez, Hermes Birkin, and correlations of life and beach chairs wrapped up in a bottle of Dom CuvÃ©e Rose didn’t particularly connect with the people as he intended. They wanted that gutter Jay.
So after attending an advance screening of the Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe film American Gangster inspired from the life of 1970’s Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, a sense of familiarity overtook his thinking ultimately leading to the creation of an album sharing the same name. The businessman mentality of the lead character seriously hit home and took him down the path towards memory lane. Mixing the episodes of Lucas’ life with his own personal drug related past makes American Gangster a semi-conceptual affair and one of Jay-Z’s finest efforts.
Delivering glorified narratives of criminal activity devoid of bland rhetoric is what Jay has thrived off his whole career and the vibe of American Gangster clearly reflects such, as it is pregnant with detail. From the cinematic opener of “Pray” to the celebratory “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)”, a lyrically sharp Jigga layers his verses with vivid wordplay that unwinds as a mini-movie in their own way. The Neptunes produced “I Know” probably should have been named “Blue Magic” with its soothing light calypso rhythm, but don’t let this lullaby fool you because it’s not your typical love song. As heroin is personified in uncut form, Jay coolly succeeds with lines like “That black rain will take away ya pain/just for one night/baby take me in vain (vein).”
Other substantial disquisitions include the sinister “No Hook” where Jigga cuts the chorus and the crap (“Fuck DeHaven for caving”) and the Nas featured “Success” which screams for a worldwide petition for these two giants to collaborate on a project together if one isn’t already in the works.
The score also gives merit to the conceptual aspect of the album with plenty of throwback compositions that give American Gangster its 70’s feel. The elaborate storytelling of “American Dreamin” is anchored by a bluesy Marvin Gaye sample and couples stark realism with witty metaphors that beg to be rewound. Just Blaze blesses the title track with a flurry of gospel and bounce melodies and if you listen closely to Jigga’s double-timed delivery, you’ll catch him address a pesky rumor that’s been surrounding him of as late, and the groovy “Party Life” is a rhyme-laden jam session that has its fair share of humor to accompany the mood that it gives off.
But while a thoroughly produced album, the lyrics trump the beat selection ensuring that there’s no slacking on the microphone. Speaking for the culture on “Ignorant Shit” and “Say Hello,” the insightful side of Jay is revealed with topics ranging from Don Imus, misguided youth, and Al Sharpton. The tremendous bass nor Lil’ Wayne’s melodic hooks of “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” can steal the show from crafty lyrics “Check my ice grill/baby I’m cold as ice/like I’m from Brownsville/but my Bed’s in the Stuy/though I’ll Flatten your Bush/….what up to the boy B.I./you know I handle b-i/I don’t half-step on a Kane…” and so on and on.
Sometimes striking the middle ground is all you need to do to reach that higher plateau. By adhering to his urges to relive his illustrious past over production that threads the line of commercial and credible effortlessly, Jay-Z has created one of those albums that appeals to fans on multiple sides of the spectrum, conclusively placing ya boy in that coveted “win-win” position. Not to be compared to similar themed material such as Reasonable Doubt where the musical themes felt more current than an afterthought, American Gangster finds itself in a virtually untapped notch on the rapper’s belt mainly because the concept was influenced by the motion picture. Where as a cut like “Fallin,” which depicts the end of a powerful run, ultimately takes on a double meaning. Just think how many more movies can inspire rappers that turned astray in the near future.
If that’s the case, someone needs to find the Hughes Brothers from their hiding place or give Martin Scorsese a trip through the ghetto for reference points. Wishful thinking maybe, but the idea has compelled Jay-Z to deliver the type of album the people not only demand of him, they expect it. And you got to give the people what they want, right? Whatever the inspiration, it’s just refreshing to hear an album that can outlive the hype it generates and for that, the outcome is beautiful.