Don’t pay any mind to the naysayers who criticized Jay-Z’s previous album, the underrated Kingdom Come. They wrongly characterized it as an artistic flop, a disappointing return for a rapper who had finished his career by making The Black Album, one of his best and most influential works. Jay’s problem is his catalog of successful singles, like “Big Pimpin’,” “Hola’ Hovito,” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” as well as at least three brilliant albums; I submit The Blueprint and The Black Album as two of the best rap albums of the decade. In these works, Jay merged the popular sound constructed by the best beat-makers in the business, such as Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beats, and Just Blaze, with an adept handling of rap technique, including imagery, alliteration, metaphor, and allusion, to suit his artistic purposes.
American Gangster, his newest album, is Jay-Z going back to his American Gangster’s “Ignorant Shit” he lets his critics and audiences know how disappointed he is with their reaction to its message. But American Gangster doesn’t just dwell on the past by trying to either defend or apologize for Jay-Z’s artistic choices. It’s an album centered around a movie of the same name, starring Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, that inspired Jay-Z perhaps as much as Scarface or even The Godfather did. On American Gangster he goes back to the formula that made his first album, Reasonable Doubt, a classic, telling tales of hustling and living by one’s wits, surviving by cunning and cleverness while awash in this life’s moral ambiguity. Songs like “Success,” “Fallin’,” and “American Dreamin’” showcase Jay-Z’s deft storytelling skills and his ability to create stark imagery through creative wordplay. Furthermore, Jay understands all too well the perils of greed and unencumbered capitalism exemplified by the downfall of most successful drug dealers and street hustlers. He has no need to sugarcoat either the movie’s narrative, which centers on the rise and fall of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, or his own past.
Critics will almost certainly prefer this album to Kingdom Come, and that response is not surprising. It’s easy to get carried away by the nostalgia for Reasonable Doubt that American Gangster evokes. There was a rawness and hunger in Reasonable Doubt that American Gangster attempts to recapture and market to Jay-Z’s mainstream audience. This new album succeeds because, in mining Jay-Z’s past and this particular movie’s narrative, the album does not just evoke the rapper’s past. It also repositions these sources in the present so that an older, wiser statesman of rap can reexamine his past from a fresh new perspective.