Classic Albums: 'American Gangster' by Jay-Z

Classic Albums: 'American Gangster' by Jay-Z

Published Fri, September 2, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT

Jay-Z's 10th album is the story of a hustler who earned his victory lap. We're invited to the celebration but also to bear witness to his confessions.

When the album dropped, Jay was already a Hip-Hop statesman. He sold millions of records, his body of work was lyrically unmatched, and he was decorated with a long list of awards. 

In 2003 he even retired, complete with a farewell album and a "final" concert at Madison Square Garden, both the subject of the documentary, Fade to Black. He spent his time away as the President of Def Jam, breaking several artists who became household names: Ne-Yo, Rick Ross, Jeezy, and the Bad Gyal herself, Rihanna. 

He flirted with rap music again in 2005 with "Dear Summer," a track from Memphis Bleek's 534. It was a love letter to his fans. We missed him, and it was nice to know he missed us too. 

Then he decided to un-retire and "came back like Jordan wearing the 4-5." He dropped Kingdom Come after a three-year hiatus. Like his previous albums, it was commercially successful, selling 1.5 million copies. However, the subject matter was heavily critiqued. Jay was known for intricately revealing the soul of a hustler. And Kingdom Come was filled with the flashy escapades of a newly minted multi-millionaire executive. But on American Gangster, he found balance. And it came in the form of one of 2007s most highly-anticipated films.

"It was like I was watching the film, and putting it on pause, and giving a back story to the story," he told the NY Times.

Jay is a self-proclaimed cinema buff. Movie references from gangster films, including Casino, Carlito's Way, and Scarface, are interwoven throughout his entire catalog. This was different. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, the movie American Gangster follows the journey of Frank Lucas, a Black man, who did the extraordinary: smuggle opioids from Vietnam into the states, beat the Mob, and build an empire. He broke the rules and achieved the impossible. His rise to renowned kingpin was littered with hard-fought battles, heartbreaking losses, and phenomenal success. Those elements are the scaffolding for Jay's album because his life trajectory is almost a kindred cousin to Lucas.'

The movie's trailer even originally featured Jay-Z's 2001 track "Heart Of The City (Ain't No Love)."

It was like I was watching the film, and putting it on pause, and giving a back story to the story..."

- Jay-Z (N.Y. TIMES interview)

The movie brought back emotions from his time on the street that his accomplishments in music tucked away. He also lets us share his victories. And the dichotomy unfolds beautifully, shaped by his signature Brooklyn cool bravado, relentless ambition, and a bruised heart he sometimes exposes. 

Musically, the album lives in the 70s. Jay's longtime friend and hitmaking producer, P. Diddy, gave him a treasure trove of soul beats. He didn't have anyone else he felt comfortable offering them to. Unfortunately, Biggie was gone. But Jay could take them and deliver something great. And he did. 

The album opens with a manifesto, giving us the laws governing "gangsterment." Then, actors Idris Elba, (also in the film), and Angel Wood, tell us what a gangster is, is not, and the kind of power being in the drug game brings you. The stereotype of a knucklehead with sagging jeans and swagger is not gangster. Instead, it's owning a dream, making up your own rules, and building new worlds.

Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.

The first song we hear, "Pray" is, in fact, part prayer. Beyoncé starts the track asking God for protection. That’s followed by Jay's brash but candid self-assessment. This duality is apparent throughout the project. He does do a lot of bragging. But his soul shines through when similar to "Pray," the brutality of his circumstance is paired with introspection.

Another standout track, "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)," brings us to a crescendo: "Mazel tov! It's a celebration, bitches." Jay and his crew are the dope dealers of the year and the drinks are on the house. He thanks everyone involved: the connect, lame niggas, pastors, women friends, hustlers, and most importantly - the customers. Even in this bright spot, there's still an acknowledgment of the people suffering to fuel his prosperity. Nonetheless, the party doesn't stop. It can't stop. This is Black superhero music.

In the film, "Blue Magic" is the brand of dope Lucas sells. To him, the name is just as recognizable as a product from General Mills or Pepsi. On the song with the same title, Jay coolly promotes his brand—an ingenious hustler who became a rock star. He's "straight gettin' it." 

"Success," his second collaboration with Nas following the 2005 end of their infamous battle, describes the unpleasant side of "making it." Jay angrily affirms he's impeccable and "not to be fucked with." But the cost of this new life is the easier one he once knew. So what does he think of success? "It sucks," he offers, quoting Eminem. Nas opens his verse with big money talk, which surprisingly leads to a more existential consideration: he can't really trust anyone. But, with a mansion, expensive jewelry, and soft furs to keep him warm, he doesn't give fuck.


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Jay ends AMERICAN GANGSTER with a look back to the beginning.

The closing title track is an upbeat origin story. He's from the "home of the heron, era of the hustlers." And even with everything he's experienced, the crack epidemic, extreme violence, and great loss, including the death of his friend, The Notorious B.I.G., he refuses to give up. Because, as Jay puts it, "I want the sky, nigga." 

The album was Jay-Z's 10th project to debut at number one on the Billboard 200; tying him with Elvis at the time. He continues to dominate the charts and Hip-Hop's cultural conversations. Poverty, drugs, and the devastation they cause can have a traumatic impact. Jay's music is his outlet to process those feelings and take a well-deserved bow. It also gives us—the customers—a sense of escape. 

The dope he's selling these days, though, doesn't kill—it inspires

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