In September, during a special congressional hearing, hip-hop once again came under scrutiny for violent and/or misogynistic content. (Thanks, Imus!) And once again, rappers invoked the Terminator defense — you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger killed people on screen, why can’t we do it on record? On American Gangster, an album of drug-underworld tales inspired by the Ridley Scott film of the same name, Jay-Z echoes that sentiment, declaring all rappers ”actors,” including himself: ”Believe half of what you see/None of what you hear/Even if it’s spat by me.” Of course, if that argument is true, it makes you wonder why someone as talented as Jay — dude could probably rap The Hobbit and make it sound fly — would play the same role, the hardened hustler-turned-playboy, for his entire career. What’s just as confounding is how he manages to pull it off time after time.
Scott’s Gangster follows the ascension of Frank Lucas, a notorious ’70s heroin kingpin played by Denzel Washington. While Jay-Z does not make the ambitious leap of trying to write from Lucas’ point of view, he does use the film’s story and period vibe to color his own elaborate legend. On ”American Dreamin’,” a Marvin Gaye sample provides the backdrop as Jay-Z wistfully recounts his early days as a wannabe dealer, scheming with his buddies. ”We need it now,” he raps over the (slightly too) drippingly soulful Diddy-produced track, ”We need a town/We need a place to pitch/We need a mound.” Nobody flips a drug-trafficking metaphor better. The more celebratory but less garish ”Party Life” is another old-school contribution from Diddy, with Jay channeling slick ’70s icons like Goldie and Superfly over a slow groove and silky guitar licks. ”So tall and lanky,” he boasts in no hurry, ”my suit, it should thank me.”
But Gangster is not purely a throwback album. There are also sparse, programmed beats from the Neptunes and lesser-knowns like No I.D., with Jay-Z fixing his flow accordingly. What unites the collection more than a specific sound is a narrative arc that loosely parallels Lucas’ rise and decline. On ”Fallin’,” the record’s emotional climax, Jay-Z raps frantically as the walls close in. ”The irony of selling drugs is sort of like using it,” he admits over Jermaine Dupri’s chaotic looped keys, ”Guess there’s two sides to what substance abuse is.” But ultimately, Jay-Z fends off disillusionment and knuckleheaded usurpers, only to emerge cockier than ever on the next track. Lucas, in the film and in real life, gets pinched and turns snitch. For Jay-Z, that would be out of character. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear a preview of ”Success” at barnesandnoble.com
Want more Jay-Z? See what he and collaborators Sean ”Diddy” Combs, L.A. Reid, and other insiders told EW about the making of American Gangster.