I feel a little bad for JAY-Z—that is if you can feel bad for a multi-millionaire rap legend with the planet’s hottest girlfriend. His role as the emperor of the Hova empire aside, JAY-Z’s last album Kingdom Come was doomed from the start. We don’t want albums from Jay, we want cultural landmarks. He’s supposed to make Platinum-selling music that satisfies both the most lyrically hungry backpackers and Gucci-draped club goers. Oh, and he’s also responsible for making Def Jam the biggest label in the game. No one else deals with that kind of pressure, no one. Kingdom Come’s failure was not that it was a bad album, but that it revealed Jay as something less than a hip-hop god, a mere mortal.
With the release of American Gangster, JAY-Z is on a mission to prove he’s still the best rapper alive. He succeeds. The album has the kind of intensity and craftsmanship we haven’t seen from Jay in years, maybe ever. American Gangster isn’t a soundtrack to the new film of the same name, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of 70’s drug kingpin Frank Lucas has simply inspired Jay, in the same way watching Rocky makes you want to go hit a punching bag. Hova evidently sees a lot of himself in Lucas, he hustles hip-hop like Lucas hustled heroine, and American Gangster is a 70’s soaked story of powerful black men and the crimes they committed to get to the top.
American Gangster starts with "Pray," a cinematic flashback that recounts Jay’s lost childhood innocence. The beat pulses with a deadly seriousness as Jay rhymes “everything I've seen made me everything I am / bad drug dealer or I victim I beg / what came first moving chickens or the egg?” If this album was a movie, "Pray" would be the creation of Hova, the birth of the best rapper/businessman hybrid hip-hop’s ever seen. Moving on with the cinematic metaphor, the next scene would be "Sweet," a track that has Jay swimming in the rewards of his success. As good as Jay’s flow is throughout the album, and it’s extraordinary, "Sweet" shows the production is equally clutch. Diddy’s production team The Hitmen—LV, Sean C, and Mario Winans—take soul and funk samples from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to create a cohesive musical thesis so 70’s even I’m inspired to grow an afro. Listening to "Sweet" is like watching the original Shaft, only instead of Isaac Hayes, we get intimidatingly powerful rhymes from JAY-Z.
Every high has its low and just like the real Frank Lucas—who went into the witness protection program after giving up info to the cops—Jay admits that fame and fortune has a dark side. During the gospel-organ driven track "Success" he isn’t bragging when he says “I got watches I ain’t seen in months, an apartment at the Trump I only slept in once,” he’s admitting that his life of luxury is ultimately pointless. Even guest feature Nas (can we stop mentioning the beef now?) agrees when he asks “why is life worth living, is it the hunt for the s*** you want?”
How good is American Gangster as an album? Jay and Nas absolutely kill the flow and it isn’t even the best track. For me that honor goes to "Fallin'," a track produced by No I.D. where JAY-Z reflects on his past and concludes it’s only a matter of time before he meets his downfall; it’s the fate of any real hustler. The knock on Jay during Kingdom Come was that his lyrics were too commercially motivated, a problem he subtly addresses on "Fallin'" when he says, “the irony of selling drugs is sort of like using it / guess there’s two sides to what substance abuse is.”
Is there really any question who’s the greatest?
I could write a novel about American Gangster and it’s implications for hip-hop, but space constraints force me to skim over some tracks. "Roc Boys" is the best party track Hov’s released since "Big Pimpin," none other than Rakim told me The Neptunes' produced track "Blue Magic" is a personal favorite, and the genius of "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" featuring sung/rapped verses from Lil Wayne can only be realized with a fully-charged audio system.
How good is this album? I’ll put it this way; five years from now if someone looks through your album collection and notices American Gangster is missing, they’ll think you don’t know anything about hip-hop.
And if you're on DJBooth that can't be true, right?