In Defense Of…Jay-Z’s ‘American Gangster’

 

It’s the 20th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt  the best album from an all-time great year in hip-hop — and since everyone else is weighing in with their Jay-Z takes, I thought I’d join the fun.

The following is an excerpt from my 2015 book In Defense Of… Supporting Underappreciated Artists, Athletes, Actors, and Albums, in which I defend and celebrates individuals and projects that were unfairly maligned or misunderstood from the world of music, sports, TV & film. It can be purchased in both paperback and Kindle.

When an artist has more number one albums than Elvis, it’s easy for some of them — even the top-notch ones — to slip through the cracks. Such is the case with American Gangster, Jay-Z’s 2007 concept album that is often overlooked.

American Gangster is impressive, particularly when considering what came before it. On his comeback album released the year prior, Kingdom Come, Jay came across as content with what he had accomplished, yet bitter that he hadn’t received enough credit for it. Worst of all, he sounded out of touch, referencing brands most listeners had never heard of and rapping about things and experiences to which even fewer could relate. It appeared as if age and success had caught up to him and he had finally fallen off.

However, an advance screening of the Ridley Scott-directed film American Gangster transported him back to his pre-mogul days, when he was just Shawn Carter, the young man standing on the street corner, looking out for cops and rivals, and dreaming of something bigger. It is a mind frame that he had not had since Reasonable Doubt a decade before, and it clearly energized him. It ripped “Jay out of the royal materialistic old-man haze that ruined Kingdom Come and recalls the titanic, invincible snarl that made him great in the first place.”[1]

The narrative begins with the young man without many options fantasizing about getting into the game (“Pray,” “American Dreamin’”), then, once he’s there, celebrating his triumphs (“Roc Boys [And the Winner Is…],” “Party Life”), before quickly becoming paranoid and uncertain (“Success,” which features Nas playing a rival in a brilliant turn of art imitating life), and ultimately receiving his comeuppance (“Fallin’”).

It’s a concept album about the rise and fall of a drug kingpin, but it’s a loose-knit one, allowing Jay to shift between recalling his own drug-dealing days and commenting on events occurring within the current culture. It is “a reflection of the emotions the film evoked…tapping into his vintage Marcy Projects days but avoiding a period-piece vibe by dropping current touchstones and terminology, a sop to up-and-coming criminals.”[2]

Musically, the album is a lush soundscape that harkens back to the sounds of ’70s and its Blaxploitation era, at once soulful, funky, and gritty. “The sampled voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye float through the record like ghosts of Jay’s past, sweetly offering encouragement like benevolent angels.”[3] Each instrumental is cinematic, giving Jay the backdrop he needs depending on where in the story arc the song falls. Diddy and The Hitmen handled the bulk of the first half of the album — when the vibe is ambitious, then celebratory — while the second half — when the mood turns dark — comes via The Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, No I.D., and others. “The CD’s primarily live instrumentation not only sounds better, but the warm, deep grooves, Latin sway, and sensual soulfulness are tailor-made for the ’70s theme. It’s a blaxploitation, blue-lights-in-the-basement sexiness, a lushness born of the Dramatics, the Delfonics, Barry White. Shades of Marvin Curtis, too, as Jay takes you back without being shamelessly retro.”[4]

 

While the music evokes the ’70s, the lyrics and flows call to mind mid-‘90s Jaÿ-Z, when his name had an umlaut and his ambition was insatiable. “On American Gangster, he’s fallen back in love with language, making slick puns and jamming his lines with internal rhymes and vivid, detailed images without letting those devices detract from the emotional punch of his mini-narratives.”[5]

His mastery of speech allows him to convincingly convey every feeling, running the gamut from optimism to bleakness to arrogance to finally regret. Applying complicated rhyme-patterns, similes, metaphors, wicked wordplay, and more, the album is littered with examples of Jay showing off his skills, including coded references — “Think O.J./I get away with murder when I sling ‘ye/Heron got less steps than Britney/That means it ain’t stepped on, dig me?”[6] — heterographs — “Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra/I ran contraband that they sponsored”[7] — puns — “Move coke like Pepsi” — and double-entendres — “Survive the drought, I wish you well.”[8] It is a songwriting clinic.

The album’s lone hiccup is not a bad song, but simply a misplaced one. “Originally penned for The Black Album, ‘Ignorant Shit’ should have stayed there as it sticks out like a sore thumb here. It is really the only song that is by Jay-Z the rapper, rather than by Shawn Carter the hustler.”[9] He updates it with references to Don Imus and censorship, but both the music and the content are totally out of step with the rest of the album, but it’s a minor sin.

While American Gangster debuted at number on the Billboard chart and received almost unanimously positive reviews and accolades — Spin named it the eighth best album of 2007, while Rolling Stone named it the third best and declared “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)” the best single of the year — in recent years it has been either overlooked or dismissed in favor of other, sometimes lesser, projects. It is often grouped in with his other post-retirement albums that sandwiched it — Kingdom Come and The Blueprint 3 — but it is far greater than either of those and is one of the best projects of his illustrious career, just a step below Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album. It is the closest he has ever come to matching that first LP, a 37-year-old superstar with nothing left to prove attacking the microphone like a mid-twenties upstart. It is truly an impressive feat. “Forget Frank Lucas: The real black superhero here is Jay.”[10]


[1] Breihan, Tom. “Jay-Z: American Gangster Review.” Pitchfork, November 8, 2007.

[2] Linden, Amy. “The Harlem Renaissance.” The Village Voice, October 30, 2007.

[3] Breihan, Tom. “Jay-Z: American Gangster Review.” Pitchfork, November 8, 2007.

[4] Linden, Amy. “The Harlem Renaissance.” The Village Voice, October 30, 2007.

[5] Breihan, Tom. “Jay-Z: American Gangster Review.” Pitchfork, November 8, 2007.

[6] Jay-Z. “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…).” American Gangster. Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam. 2007.

[7] Jay-Z. “Blue Magic.” American Gangster. Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam. 2007.

[8] Jay-Z. “Hello Brooklyn 2.0.” American Gangster. Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam. 2007.

[9] J-23. “Jay-Z — American Gangster.” Hip Hop DX, November 4, 2007.

[10] Sheffield, Rob. “Jay-Z: American Gangster Album Review.” Rolling Stone, November 15, 2007.


Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, I Hate JJ Redick, and elsewhere. You can also find him on Facebook or Twitter.

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