Jay-Z is fascinated by the criminal underworld, and he was among the first
in line to see Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” catching a screening
months before the movie opened and collected $43.6 million at the box office
In fact, the 37-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur was so inspired that he
rushed into the studio for a three-week burst of creative energy that
yielded 15 tracks allegedly inspired by specific scenes in the film.
Yet while the superstar rapper’s 10th studio album shares the movie’s
title and includes snippets of its dialog, it’s not an official soundtrack.
And if the album is a strong effort that’s certainly better than last year’s
“Kingdom Come,” which heralded the end of his much-hyped three-year
“retirement,” it’s hardly the artistic equal of the film, much less classics
of the genre such as “The Godfather” or the novels of Iceberg Slim.
Most disturbingly, the album lacks the moral core of the movie, which is a
two-pronged look at the corrupting power of capitalism from the parallel
perspectives of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie
Roberts, the cop who brought him down (Russell Crowe). Roberts’ noble ethics
are nowhere to be found on the disc, nor is there any consideration of the
pain that Lucas’ Blue Magic dope wreaked on his own community, which he
tried to buy off with Thanksgiving turkeys.
The film “connected with me on an emotional level,” the former Shawn
Carter recently told the Los Angeles Times. “It was so similar to the
neighborhoods that I came up in, and things that happened there ... It’s
really about the emotions of that life. I would take an emotion that I felt
was important, or things that resonated with me ... and make a song.”
Jay-Z feels so strongly that the new songs are linked as part of an
overall story arc that he’s not making the disc available for download on
sites such as iTunes. “As movies are not sold scene by scene, this
collection will not be sold as individual singles,” he says in the press
It will be interesting to see if the rapper maintains the purity of his
vision by performing the album’s songs in order and in its entirety when he
appears at the House of Blues tonight as part of an intimate five-city club
tour to draw attention to the release.
(The $100 tickets to the Chicago show reportedly sold out in 30 seconds,
but fans shut out of the House of Blues can watch him talk about the album
on an episode of “VH1 Storytellers” premiering Thursday night.)
Once you listen to this alleged concept disc, however, it’s hard to hear
what Jay-Z is going on about: The story is hardly fresh, gripping or even
particularly coherent. Hova has been rapping about the gangsta life since
launching his career in the mid-’90s, and if a few lines this time around
can be traced to the fictionalized account of Lucas’ rise and fall — minus
his betrayal of the people who made him rich — the themes are so played out
and one-dimensional in his hands that they’ve become tired cliches.
“I didn’t choose this life, this life chose me ... Sweet taste of sin,
everything I’ve seen made me everything I am,” the star raps in “Pray,”
echoing every drug dealer who’s ever been busted. Yeah, right, tell it to
Lyrically, the artist is much more entertaining when he’s just cracking
wise, ripping on the Jacksons or cussing up a storm while mocking the
fallout from the Don Imus scandal. But the music is by far the biggest
source of the disc’s appeal.
Producers Jermaine Dupri, the Neptunes, No I.D. and Just Blaze all make
appearances on a few tracks each. But shockingly the lion’s share of the
credit is due to Sean “Diddy” Combs, who goes a long way toward redeeming a
career that had become a sorry punch line. Taking some cues from Kanye West,
he crafts six intoxicating jams that dig deep into ’70s soul for inspired
samples from forgotten heroes such as Rudy Love & the Love Family, Little
Beaver and Larry Ellis & the Black Hammer, as well as the far more familiar
Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.
Over these powerfully seductive tracks, Jay-Z one again justifies his
reputation as one of the most agile and free-flowing rappers that the genre
has ever produced. His undeniable voice fuels the disc’s exhilarating
joyride — and you’ll only notice the bumps in the road if you bother to
think too deeply about what he’s saying.