American Gangster - The Return of Marcy's Hero
Everybody has dreams of leaving on their own terms. It's the touchdown that wins the game right before you ride off into the sunset. Hip-hop is a fluid, ever changing art form. With that, consistency is a virtue and prized possession. Even in modern times, the tide of change is an inevitability. An artist can release a record that takes to the masses and it not translate in album form. In order to stay in the minds of the masses, you have to elevate to raise the bar with every release.
003's The Black Album was at the time, Jay-Z's buzzer beater. ike the celebratory crescendo towards the last half of "Encore," Jay-Z desired to morph into something different in mastering the rubix cube of rap music. What started with 1996's Reasonable Doubt, in a small, rented office, grew to something prolific. Something special. Something unprecedented. With every release and every pillar knocked down, Brooklyn's own was all of us. Now, he got to transform into something different.
In 1983's Rocky 3, Rocky Balboa is on top of the world. He enjoys the spoils of his labor as the world champion. Perhaps, he lost some of his drive that had him endure the beatings in two fights with Apollo Creed. Eventually, Clubber Lang came - the young, hungry upstart that beat Rocky. It took Rocky to going back to those hole in the wall gyms, the places where the dream started to get his fire back.
2006's Kingdom Come was not necessarily Jay-Z losing his fire. Hip-hop has always been looked upon as a "young man's game." For the first time, especially off albums like The Blueprint and The Black Album, it looked like the hero lost a step. Given the statement that was made with what was his presumed last album, perhaps Kingdom Come was destined to fall short. Maybe Kingdom Come was the wakeup call that even the greatest slip up sometime.
2007's American Gangster is not only cinematic, as Jay-Z has shown in prolific story telling ability throughout his career, but auto-biographical. As a pure New York story, Jay-Z created this album with an essence that spoke both from a perspective of Frank Lucas' story as well as his own. For every celebratory get together that is “Roc Boys”, there’s dealing with the conception of what “Success” really entails. It’s the marriage of “Party Life” and “Ignorant Shit” where the dizzying heights start to unravel. You live long enough to see yourself become the villain. That same villain that Jay-Z dismantles in this year’s 4:44.
AM is not your conventional "movie soundtrack," it's a syllabus. It's a retrospective in visualizing where you've been to see where you are heading.
That album was Jay-Z returning to his "gym," the early days in Marcy Projects as a young black man on the come up. The album is laden with soul samples from the likes of Sean "Diddy" Combs. If there was anybody who can capture the embodiment of what is considered a "New York" album, that's the person to go to. The Neptunes contributed to the dreamy, "I Know," a metaphoric mental tussle that Jay-Z has with addiction from three vantage points. No I.D. and Jermaine Dupri led the soulful organs of "Success" from “Funky Thing (Part 1)” by Larry Ellis & The Black Hammer. The soul samples from Barry White and Marvin Gaye gives you feel of listening to an album from a vinyl record.
As the album is a journey from lessons of ascendance and decline, you can visualize every word. The cover art is a personification of manifesting the energy of the past to propel into your future. Clad in a suit and tie, overcome by the light from the outside, Jay-Z was both walking from a time machine and setting the stage for the next phase. The opening track, “Pray” sets the stage for what is the warped view of what is the “American Dream.” Success, women, money – they all come with a price.
They say, "You're too little;
One day you'll understand
When you become a man
About things you have to get you"
There’s this dichotomy of rising in the drug game within the ghetto. Yes, it may elevate you and others associated with you, but it’s also a double edge sword. Those same drugs are poisoning others. It’s a broken system to where some have engaged in this to be free. Jay-Z touches on this on “American Dreamin’”
With this album, Jay interjects his story and defers from Frank Lucas. Where he started from crime, he flipped that hustler’s mentality into music and his other enterprises. Jay-Z the mogul and Jay-Z the legendary rapper was back to a co-existing space of abundance. Let's not forget, Kingdom Come was just a year prior. With an artist who has a made a career of being introspective, American Gangster was a return to the source. There was small, five city club tour, even a VHI story teller’s episode devoted to the album. Jay-Z found his fire again within his humble beginnings and from inspiration from another.