The rapper Jay-Z recently told a reporter that Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the film that opened on Nov. 2 depicting the dazzling rise and precipitous fall of the 70’s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, compelled him to write “a back story to the story.”Jay Z’s back story is released today in record stores as a 15-track album also titled "American Gangster."
It’s not to be confused with the soundtrack of the film, which falls short of the movie’s Godfather-ish ambitions.
Unlike Denzel Washington’s fearsome, enigmatic, charming depiction of Frank Lucas, the soundtrack of period hits feels like a Saturday picnic drive with the oldies station on or a hip spinning class. There’s a nice single by Anthony Hamilton, decent period tunes like “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack, and fine but unimaginatively chosen smash hits of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Comin’” to the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”
Hank Shocklee, the producer of Bomb Squad fame, offers some stellar instrumentals on the soundtrack too, but it is one of Mr. Shocklee’s former producing credits that rings loud with danger just as the movie is fading to black: Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It.”
With its whinnying horn sample and mechanical beats, the song sees Chuck D recalling the horrors of the Middle Passage and warning Black America not to let down its guard an inch. It’s a bizarre closing message to the film, since Chuck D’s lyrics always deprecated the drug trade; insurrectionism was always political, never purely criminal. Frank Lucas was no Angela Davis, these lyrics seem to say.
But Jay-Z, whose career was gearing up just as Public Enemy’s moon was on the wane, has made a career out of crime narratives. His album is not just the back story to the story; it’s the soundtrack that should have been, delivering on the film’s nostalgia for everything from Superfly to Serpico in an idiom that is raw, triumphant, furious and dolorous, but never tame. If base nostalgia is a sort of compromise with the past, Jay Z’s “American Gangster” is not nostalgic because it’s not compromised.
More than a decade (and one rescinded retirement) into his career, Jay-Z is in a unique position to make this album. His debut "Reasonable Doubt" was a delirious paean to the drug game. As more releases followed, Jay scaled back his complex double-time rhymes and struck gold with party jams. “The Black Album” was heralded as his final album. It was not, but it was his finest achievement. Then came "Kingdom Come." It was, despite a few bright spots and competent lyrical work, an uneasy transition from the utter mastery of "The Black Album" to a hip-hop mostly devoid of guns and grams, a sophisticated take on the genre that no one has really invented yet. So while he’s tinkering with the formula, along comes the perfect diversion, where Jay is allowed to play once more with crime stories and street dreams, and infuse it all with the perspective of the elder statesman, of the master.
The album opens with a gravelly definition of what it means to be a gangster. The voice belongs to Idris Elba who not only plays Frank Lucas’s overbrash rival Tango in the movie, but played calculating kingpin Stringer Bell on HBO’s cult hit The Wire.
Elba seems like the perfect entrée into an album that seeks to provide a definitive explanation of what it means to be a drug dealer, and what it means to craft the image of a drug dealer, whether through film or through song. Midway through the album, on “Ignorant Sh*t,” (actually a recycled tune from "Black Album" sessions), Jay lays it out quite clearly: “Actually believe half of what you see, none of what you hear, even if it’s spit by me,” and then goes on to document the ways he will murder and double-murder all comers.
The opening track, “Pray,” makes good use of a breathy Beyonce, as Jay relates a youth spent witnessing crime and learning how “the rules is blurred.” “American Dream” sees the album begin to blossom around a terrific Marvin Gaye sampling track where, amid weepy strings, Hova wonders whether he ought to be considering college instead of eyeing his entry into the game. “We need a place to pitch, we need a mound,” he says, as if the American dream were really just that easy, a piece of land from which to build a fortune. At one point he offers the benediction, one dealer to another, “survive the draughts, I wish you well,” then repeats the line with a twinge of disbelief, saying next “How sick am I? I wish you health, I wish you wheels, I wish you wealth, I wish you insight so you can see for yourself.” It’s a rare moment where the dream is finally for the wisdom to simply survive. “No Hook,” offers a rueful double meaning and a walking tempo. The song has no hook, no chorus, and Jay yelps that he doesn’t need one, but early on it’s clear the hook represents his absent father, a presence replaced by the criminal code.
“Roc Boys,” with its incredibly boisterous staccato horns (and a little help from Kanye West on the hook), offers an all-out celebration of the drug game, of the money, of buying the bar: “Oh what a feelin’, I’m feelin’ life!” “I Know” is a standard Neptunes-produced love song, all Nintendo-style slow jam, only in this case the love being professed is to an addict from the addiction, with clever reversals like “91/2 weeks is better than 12 steps.” On “Success,” Jay laments the lack of comforts in wealth, fancy things, fancy places to go: “How many times can I go to Mr. Chow’s?” The B-3 organ boil-up alongside a thunderous beat provides a perfectly doom-laden backdrop for such musings and threats, while Nas steals at least part of the show with his unreal guest verse. By the final track, “Fallen,” the arc of the narrative is complete: the mighty kingpin comes down, and the people come from all around to take pleasure from the fall; really the same pleasure they took from his rise. It’s tragedy: early success always has downfall secreted within itself.
“Blue Magic” and the title track, are bonus tracks, but also two of the best tracks here. “Blue Magic” refers to the brand name on Frank Lucas’s heroin, but it is self-branding that Jay achieves on the track, deepening his timbre but increasing his speed, boasting of his prowess as a crack dealer in a style both effortless and inimitable. For the title track, Just Blaze provides a beat built on a Curtis Mayfield sample, bringing us full circle to Superfly. It’s a tremendous sample, a tremendous beat, and a tremendously solid turn at the mic from Jay, a righteous way to end a mostly righteous, and perhaps more importantly, a smartly conceived, album. Jay may or may not be up to his full potential, and tongues will continue to wag through the coming weeks debating just that point. What’s beyond debate is that he has told the story behind the story, and continues to amaze.