The Kingpin of Rap Returns
Yes, it’s true: Jay-Z is back with American Gangster, and he’s better than ever.
It’s a brilliant idea really - a concept album from a rapper. What better way to tell a story of struggle than through the poetics of rap? And who better to tell that story than Jay - possibly the best rapper to ever try his hand at the storytelling craft that is hip hop?
This isn’t Kingdom Come, this isn’t commercially driven. This has meaning. The only way to purchase the album is in one piece; no individual tracks are being sold digitally on iTunes. As Jay told XXL Magazine, “as movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles.” In fact, the only single released so far is “Blue Magic”, a bonus track unrelated to the overall story. Though it may impact the album’s chart status from lack of digital singles sales, the end result is a stunningly intelligent album that is not only well-written but perfectly crafted. Don’t think Black Album or Blueprint 2; think of the lyrical depth of Reasonable Doubt with better samples and a storyline.
Inspired by the Ridley Scott film “An American Gangster”, Jay uses a mix of his real-life experiences and those of Frank Lucas (the movie’s main character) to tell the story of a drug kingpin from start to finish, using 13 tracks acting as scenes which are then broken down into three acts. Jay hits you right away with the intro track. It isn’t about the rapper; it’s about the story’s main character, a character that is part Jay before he rapped, part Lucas, and part anonymous dope-dealing narrator. You learn about what makes up the “American Gangster” and the different aspects of the drug trade.
The first track, “Pray”, is the precursor to the dope game. “This is the genesis of a nemesis… this is a tale of lost innocence,” Jay rhymes over a Hank Marvin sample. Thoughts are starting to creep in about a life selling drugs, aided by the realization in “American Dreaming” that the only way out of the projects is through the drug trade (“Seems as our plans to get a grant then go off to college didn’t pan or even out… Ain’t nothing wrong with aim, just gotta change the target.”). "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" is a track featuring a Beastie Boys sample and a verse by Lil’ Wayne that is more Blueprint than Reasonable Doubt- a song that features the sample as much as the rhymes. It lacks the lyrical depth of many of the other songs on the disc, but the catchy sample and an impressive verse by Lil’ Wayne still makes the track stand out. It serves as the introduction to the market; "Hello Brooklyn, time to open up shop." Finally, on “No Hook”, Jay rhymes “Stay out of trouble momma said as momma sighs/ Her fear her youngest son being a victim of homicide/ But I gotta get you out of here momma or I’m a die inside” as the picture of a mother sending her son off into the real world for the first time enters your mind.