You’d think hip-hop was one nation under a trap, what with everyone firing up the Oven Chef and talking about weight more often than Kirstie Alley. But let’s be honest: Just how many musically and lyrically gifted ex–drug dealers can there be at one time?
Maybe just one. This summer, perhaps after returning from yet another St. Tropez vacation (it’s not a dis song, it’s just a real song), Jay-Z saw an advance screening of the Ridley Scott drug drama American Gangster. The movie’s kinda weak—disappointingly so. But something about the saga of real-life ’70s Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas and the whole uptown-baby, across–110th Street vibe inspired Jay to come out of retirement. Oh. He already did that?
Jay has said that his own American Gangster isn’t a soundtrack, but rather a reflection of the emotions the film evoked. A rapper getting wood over anything dealing with, well, dealing is obvious. So being no dummy, Jay knows that when you’re insanely rich, have the hottest chick in the game (still) wearing your chain, and can hire Gwyneth Paltrow to sing backup, the kids ain’t gonna buy no more bang-bang, slang-slang. So he’s figured out a clever way to present tales from the POV of, if not Lucas, than a similarly employed fellow, tapping into his vintage Marcy Projects days but avoiding a period-piece vibe by dropping current touchstones and terminology, a sop to up-and-coming criminals.
As you’d expect from (still) one of the best wordsmiths in hip-hop, there’s some killer wordplay here, and judging by the lyric sheet passed out to critics, Jay wants us to notice. Naturally, there’s enough De Niro and Pacino call-outs to power a Godfather retrospective, but there’s also lines like “I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris/And Luda’s my dude, I’m not trying to dis” or “I need a personal Jesus/I’m in depeche mode” or, alluding to Al Sharpton’s no-ho policy, “Jena Six don’t exist/That’s when I’ll stop saying bitch.”
Musically, Gangster plays it cool but can sometimes run pretty hot. Working primarily with Puffy and his reformed Hitmen, the CD’s primarily live instrumentation not only sounds better, but the warm, deep grooves, Latin sway, and sensual soulfulness are tailor-made for the ’70s theme. It’s a blaxploitation, blue-lights-in-the-basement sexiness, a lushness born of the Dramatics, the Delfonics, Barry White. Shades of Marvin Curtis, too, as Jay takes you back without being shamelessly retro. That’s best expressed on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is . . . ),” the feel-good drug-dealing song of the year. Jay, sounding like he’s having the time of his lifetime, declares “This is black superhero music” while the horn-stoked rhythm runs, bumps, and grinds against couplets like “Heroin got less steps than Britney/That means it’s not stepped on, dig me?” To quote Frank Lucas: “My man.”
Oddly, the hyped collaborations don’t do much. “Hello Brooklyn” finds Jay and Lil Wayne working the BK metaphor to death (something about a “flat bush”), while a rematch with Nas (“Success”) has some spark but fails to light a fire, even with a jagged No I.D. track. Much like the film (which clocks in at almost three hours), this Gangster could’ve used some trimming. But as last year’s poorly received Kingdom Come still proved, Jay’s misstep is another rapper’s highlight. This one’s not too shabby either. Even with its shortcomings and some obvious ploys, Jay sets a scene the film couldn’t.
Jay-Z plays Hammerstein Ballroom November 11, mcstudios.com