On the surface, the idea of a new Jay-Z album made up of songs inspired by a new big-budget movie and timed to coincide with that movie’s release sounds like a terrible mistake in the making. Unless I’m forgetting something, the last time a rap group tried to tie in an entire album with a new movie (not counting straight-to-video rapper-produced stuff like Choices or whatever) was Public Enemy’s He Got Game soundtrack album, an unfairly dismissed and ultimately pretty good work (still love that title track, Stephen Stills and all) that nonetheless was anything but a high-water mark for its creators. Jay’s new album is going to be based on American Gangster, a big Ridley Scott period-piece crime movie that could be pretty great if this trailer is any indication. The story goes that Denzel Washington, the movie’s star, lobbied its producer to let Jay do the entire soundtrack but the producer instead opted to put together a soundtrack album of period-specific 70s soul, something that also has the potential to be pretty great. But Jay saw the movie, and he claims that it sparked a serious creative run. In this morning’s Times story, Jay talks about how he’s already recorded nine songs and how each of them is inspired by a specific scene in the movie, and I’m already getting terrifying visions of Jay describing exactly what happens in every scene, like a little kid describing his dreams or something (“And then Russell Crowe says…”). There’s a weird opportunistic cash-in streak here, too. Jay has famously accepted big sums of money to mention brand-names in his lyrics (“Motorola two-way page me”), and this entire album could be a grand, grotesque example of that trend. If Jay is, in fact, accepting any money from the film studio for this thing, it would make for some truly bizarre reverse product-placement, a movie’s backers paying someone else to mention their movie in a song instead of accepting someone else’s money to depict certain brands in their movie. Another wrinkle: American Gangster comes from Universal Pictures, which the Times article notes is no longer tied in with the Universal Music Group, Def Jam’s parent company. Jay is also going against conventional wisdom by releasing an album only a few week after announcing its existence, and that doesn’t seem to be a good sign. And then, of course, there’s Kingdom Come, Jay’s last attempt at a comeback album, a record that disappointed the hell out of me. Add up all this stuff and you get a pretty bleak picture. But then, we are talking about Jay-Z here, and maybe we should still give him the benefit of the doubt.
If what Jay’s saying is true, and I hope it is, he started writing the album after the movie unearthed all these memories of his own life. American Gangster is a movie about a New York drug lord, his aspirations and tribulations. Given Jay’s background as an aspiring New York drug lord, it makes sense that he’d feel the same way after seeing American Gangster as I would after seeing, say, Superbad. (I probably could’ve written a rap album about Superbad; just thank God I didn’t.) What’s more, if Jay is going to make a good album in 2007, he’s going to do it by digging deep into his past, not by telling us anything about his current life. One of the reasons Kingdom Come failed was its over-reliance on Jay’s quote-unquote maturity, its loving descriptions of brand-name shit I’ve never even heard of. Jay was so far-removed from his hungry younger self that he was no longer recognizable or relatable. But when older, richer Jay starts contemplating the extreme circumstances of his younger life, we can still get stuff like “99 Problems” out of him. Kingdom Come felt like a grand statement, one that he didn’t sound entirely comfortable making. Now that it’s done with, he can get back to the business of rediscovering his sneer and making bangers. To an extent, he’s been doing just that with his guest-verses this year. A few of those verses (guest-spots for Fabolous and Ne-Yo and especially his clumsy and embarrassing “Umbrella” intro) have been warmed over effort-free bullshit. But on Timbaland’s “Laff At Em,” his delivery hit that great snarly bounce that always characterized his collaborations with Tim. And on T.I.’s “Watch What You Say to Me,” he’s all implied violence and forbidding authoritarianism; it’s heartening hearing him throw threats around even if he won’t specify at whom those threats are aimed. And most recently, he doesn’t say much on his quick appearance from this week’s “I Get Money” remix, but his delivery drips with the sort of haughty disdain that the other two guys on the track will never be able to touch, no matter what their bank-accounts might look like. I was excited about Kingdom Come, too, and that album burned the hell out of me. But the prospect of Jay coming off autopilot and turning back into the old him is just too tempting to dismiss out of hand.
Also worth mentioning: at his best, Jay is someone for whom the distinction between artistic and commercial impulses is essentially meaningless. Jay is often quoted as saying that he slowed down his slippery Reasonable Doubt-era flow to double his dollars, but the results of that slowed-down stadium-rap, Volume 2 and Volume 3 in particular, are absolutely the equal of the later, more contemplative albums he’d record. Jay learned how to make his pauses resonate; his matter-of-fact delivery projected ease and security, not ineptitude. And nobody’s been following the Kanye/50 showdown more closely than Jay, so now nobody knows better than he does that a cohesive, personal, confident piece of work can sell better in 2007 can sell better than a slapped-together collection of target-demo songs. Kingdom Come sort of toed the line between those two extremes, to its own detriment. Jay is better when he picks one or the other, and maybe he’s learned something since last year.