There are a lot of things that Jay-Z
does well when it comes to this rap shit; but I don’t know that he does
anything better than weaving these street tales. The crack game and
accompanying lifestyle has been a fixture of Jay‘s rhymes since he went
from the block to the booth. As the years passed and Jay was far removed
from pumping jumbs, it naturally became less ingrained in his music. Given that
rhyming about the corner is much more appealing than rhyming about the corner office,
S-Dot Carter parlayed the inspiration of the Frank Lucas biopic
into his concept album of the same name.

When most people hear the term
“concept album” they think Prince Paul‘s A Prince Among Thieves,
the standard by which all concept albums are measured. Make no mistake about
it, American Gangster isn’t executed nearly as specifically as A
Prince Among Thieves
. Where as Prince Paul used 35 tracks of skits
and songs, Jay narrates his hustler’s story over 11 songs and an intro.
All you have to do is listen, and the rise and fall of the American Gangster is
played out for you.

Over Diddy‘s and the 2k7 Hitmen‘s
cinematic production, Jay begins the album with Pray; planting
the seeds with cause and reason for life on the corner. The first of several
70’s soundtracks fuels the standout American Dreamin‘ where Hov
begins the grind and fantasizes about bigger and better things. The path of the
story is clearly being flushed out by this point and it just continues to
evolve. The album’s first of rare missteps comes with the ode to the home turf Hello
Brooklyn 2.0
. Not only is the simplistic beat a huge step down from the
first two joints, but the usually dependable cameo king Lil’ Wayne
sounds out of place and quite frankly, absolutely atrocious.

A menacing undertone reminiscent of Reasonable
plays throughout the ominous No Hook. A deep breath before the
plunge, Hov makes no apologies for what he’s doing and just lights up
the booth for two and a half minutes. The rise of the hustler continues and reaches
its celebratory peak as lush, triumphant horns blast for the Roc Boys.
Thematically the halfway point of the album, the second half begins with Sweet
and takes a noticeably different tone as regret and consequence seep into the
mix. One of the least notable songs on the album, Sweet is all about the
good life but clearly lacks sincerity that foreshadows events to come. The
make their first appearance for the starry I Know, a rather
ruthless ode to the addicts who’s misery lines the pockets of our American
Gangster. Much like Sweet, the song isn’t bad by any means, but nothing
to write home about either. Party Life, a self explanatory theme, is one
of those songs that will forever be mentioned when Jay‘s career is
mentioned. Oozing with the soul of the 70’s, Hovi‘s flow is just beyond
slick as the man reminds us all of who has the swagger of all swaggers.

Originally penned for The Black
, 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. It’s good stuff and
all, but given that it doesn’t fit the concept at all why not give it the bonus
track treatment? DJ Toomp comes through and cooks up something lovely
for Say Hello as the negativity begins to bubble with a subtlety again
suggestive of Reasonable Doubt. Success is the beginning of the
end where despite all the riches the AG is bitter and paranoid. The theme is
played out beautifully over No I.D.‘s organs, Nas and Jay
playing the rivals clearly inspired by the sampled scene from the movie. Jigga
saves his best for last and turns in a truly breathtaking performance for the
dramatic and inevitable fall of the gangster. Fallen boasts the beat of JD‘s
career and unquestionably one of Jay‘s stupidest flows. I mean gotdamn!
And he can’t beat the odds/can’t cheat the cards/can’t blow too hard,
life’s a deck of cards/now ya tumblin’ is humblin’/ya fallin’, ya
mumblin’/under ya breath like you knew this day was comin’/now let’s pray the
arm candy that ya left ya ex for stay down and come in handy/cause come
January, its gets cold/and the letters start to slow and ya commissary’s
low/and ya lawyer screams appeal only thinkin’ ’bout his bill/and ya chances
are nil, damn gravity’s ill.

Though I would argue Blue Magic
fits the concept better than Ignorant Shit, the ridiculous Neptunes
banger joins the Just Blaze-produced title track as bonus cuts. Both are
welcome additions and thankfully added on outside of the concept portion of the
LP. With every subsequent Jay-Z album, the comparison has always been
with Reasonable Doubt. It’s unrealistic to expect him to capture the
magic or the mind frame in which he made that album, but he nearly does it with
American Gangster. Not to say this is necessarily his best album since
his debut, but given the theme a similar vibe is in its veins. Ever the master
of malicious coke raps with murmurs of lamentation and humanity, Jay makes it
all go down sweeter with flows befitting of his reputation. Even though he
rarely makes reference to himself as a rapper – largely sticking to character –
his enduring brilliance is on display as much as it ever was without needing
his insistence of it. Where this ranks amongst Jay‘s catalogue will be
determined as time passes. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it has a quality
that should resonate into something special. Maybe he said it best himself a
decade ago; “last year when niggas thought it was all up/this year, I did it
again…Jigga, what the fuck?!?

Check our
reviews for Kingdom Come and The Black Album and J-23’s editorial on Jay‘s career.