“L’chaim,” Jay-Z pronounced, holding up a shot of Patron rum, joined by the dozen or so journalists he’d invited to his Roc the Mic Studios in NYC on Friday evening. The Hebrew toast struck me as oddly apt: Simchas Torah, the Jewish holiday celebrating the first day of reading the holy scriptures, had ended just hours earlier, and here I was sitting with Jay-Hova, the self-proclaimed God Emcee, moments after he’d blessed us with his latest divine words.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The sacred writ he shared with us before those Patron shots was American Gangster, the concept album he’s planning to release Nov. 6. The unmastered tracks he played for us were missing verses here and there, and he’s still mulling over the album’s exact sequencing. Even in that incomplete state, though, American Gangster already sounded like a Jay-Z fan’s dream come true. Make no mistake — despite the emotional reference points provided by the album’s namesake film, which played overhead on a flat-screen TV throughout the listening session, this music is all about Jay and the things that make him a great artist. The beats are dominated by warm, powerful soul samples, even more so than on Jay’s 2001 classic The Blueprint; the lyrics outlining a street hustler’s mentality are by turns as clever, as incisive, as gritty, as moving as any in his catalogue. (The album is in part a reaction to the lyrical vapidity of hits like Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot,” he said: “When the guy says ‘I could make a mil’ saying nothing on the track,’ you know you’ve reached a bad place.”) After the jump, check out a track-by-track preview of the highlights so far.
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- “Pray”: American Gangster‘s first cut, one ofseveral produced by none other than Sean “Diddy” Combs — whom Jay stillcalls “Puffy,” harkening back to days long past when both were membersof the late Notorious B.I.G.’s circle. “[The album] starts with a kidlooking into the game,” Jay explained. The beat slams ominously behindhis scene-setting rhymes: “Mindstate of a gangster from the ’40s/Meetsthe business mind of Motown’s Berry Gordy.”
- “No Hook”: Another wide-screen Puff production, full of darkorgan vibes, and more rhymes from an aspiring kingpin’s perspective:”F—rich, let’s get wealthy/Who else gon’ feed we?” The mood issneering, hungry, with Jay almost seeming to slip into his long-abandoned double-time flow at times.
- “Roc Boys”: “That’s him at his height,” Jay said of hispersona in this song. “It’s a celebration of the whole s—.” Exultanthorns burst out on the beat (Puffy again) as the rapper revels in alifestyle funded by ill-gotten riches: “First of all, I wanna thank myconnect/The most important person, with all due respect/…Thinkrosé/Think O.J./I get away with murder when I sling yey’.” (The songalso includes a reference to “black bar mitzvahs.” Maybe that “L’chaim“was even more significant than I realized.)
- “I Know”: Hard-hitting percussion and sparkling synthsunderly this conceptual track about desire’s many faces: “I know whatyou like/I’m your prescription/I’m your physician/I’m your addiction.””I’m using a lot of heroin references,” Jay noted as he tried to unpackthe song’s multi-layered metaphors. “[But] on another level, it plays asa song about relationships. And on a drunk-too-much-wine-one-nightlevel, it plays as the game talking to me. It’s f—ing weird — but themusic is great.” He’s not lying.
- “Ignorant S—“: Web-savvy fans may recall a purposefully outrageous outtake from 2003’s The Black Album bearing this name. “It’s one of those gems you can’t let go,” Jay said now. So he dusted it off for Gangster,complete with the unforgettably explicit hook in which he boasts, “Igot that ignorant s— you like/N—-, f—, s—-, a–, b—-, trick,plus ice!” Just call him rap’s George Carlin. The song now alsofeatures a decidedly non-ignorant new verse in which Jay thoughtfullyeviscerates Don Imus and all those who’ve equated the disgraced shockjock with foul-mouthed rappers — plus some tight guest bars from Jay’slongtime protege Beanie Sigel.
- “Success”: The endorphin rush provided by new money startsto wear off on this cut, produced by Chicago veteran (and Kanye Westmentor) No I.D. “I used to give a f—, now I give a f— less,” Jayreflects over a rapidly descending organ riff. “Truth be told, I hadmore fun when I was piss-poor.” Jay’s former rival Nas talked him intoletting him spit on this track; Nas’ verse hasn’t been mixed in yet,but Jay promises that “It’s hot. He killed it.”
- “Say Hello to the Bad Guy”: Atlanta’s DJ Toomp (T.I.’s “WhatYou Know,” Kanye West’s “Big Brother”) contributed this beat, whichkeeps that darkening mood going with church-like organs.
- “When the Money’s Gone”: The title says it all about thisone. Jay raps about the inevitable downfall which befalls even the mostsuccessful hustlers; Jermaine Dupri produced the backdrop of shufflingdrums and cascading synths.
- “Fallen”: Another J.D. production, and likely the album’sfinal track. Jay reflects on the perverse pleasure the public takes inseeing a star destroyed: “Fallen/They applaudin’.” Neosoul croonerBilal sings the elegiac hook. It’s a cathartic ending to an emotionallygripping album.
Conspicuously missing from the evening’s playlist was “Blue Magic,”the album’s fantastic teaser single; Jay still isn’t sure yet where itwould fit in, and he’s even considering making it an unlisted bonustrack.
Jay stuck around for a couple more hours of free-wheeling discussionwith the Yankees’ playoff game in the background, supplemented by theaforementioned libations. As the night went on, he decided to treat usto one more new song — a number that’s been giving him some trouble,called “This S— Right Here.” The problem? He’s worried that theMarvin Gaye-sampling beat is too laidback for the energetic rhymes he’scurrently laid down over it. Legitimately interested in getting somefeedback, Jay insisted on hearing each and every attendee’s opinion onwhether he should trade the supremely mellow beat in for somethingharder-hitting. (For the record, it sounds great as-is, and it’ll be ashame if the final album doesn’t include that transcendent Marvinsample.)
It was 10 p.m. by the time I took my leave; the studio gathering wasstill going strong, but I had more than enough food for thought to goon. One remark in particular stuck in my head as I left. “The albumplays like a cautionary tale, but it’s not reallytrue [for me],” Jay confided with a smile at one point. “I really madeit [out of the streets]. Al Caponedidn’t make it. Michael Corleone, Scarface — I’m iller than all themn—-s.” Strong words, but the guy sure knows how to back his boasts up.