There are a lot of things that Jay-Z does well when it comes to this rap shit; but I don't know that he does anything better than weaving these street tales. The crack game and accompanying lifestyle has been a fixture of Jay's rhymes since he went from the block to the booth. As the years passed and Jay was far removed from pumping jumbs, it naturally became less ingrained in his music. Given that rhyming about the corner is much more appealing than rhyming about the corner office, S-Dot Carter parlayed the inspiration of the Frank Lucas biopic into his concept album of the same name.
When most people hear the term "concept album" they think Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves, the standard by which all concept albums are measured. Make no mistake about it, American Gangster isn't executed nearly as specifically as A Prince Among Thieves. Where as Prince Paul used 35 tracks of skits and songs, Jay narrates his hustler's story over 11 songs and an intro. All you have to do is listen, and the rise and fall of the American Gangster is played out for you.
Over Diddy's and the 2k7 Hitmen's cinematic production, Jay begins the album with Pray; planting the seeds with cause and reason for life on the corner. The first of several 70's soundtracks fuels the standout American Dreamin' where Hov begins the grind and fantasizes about bigger and better things. The path of the story is clearly being flushed out by this point and it just continues to evolve. The album's first of rare missteps comes with the ode to the home turf Hello Brooklyn 2.0. Not only is the simplistic beat a huge step down from the first two joints, but the usually dependable cameo king Lil' Wayne sounds out of place and quite frankly, absolutely atrocious.
A menacing undertone reminiscent of Reasonable Doubt plays throughout the ominous No Hook. A deep breath before the plunge, Hov makes no apologies for what he's doing and just lights up the booth for two and a half minutes. The rise of the hustler continues and reaches its celebratory peak as lush, triumphant horns blast for the Roc Boys. Thematically the halfway point of the album, the second half begins with Sweet and takes a noticeably different tone as regret and consequence seep into the mix. One of the least notable songs on the album, Sweet is all about the good life but clearly lacks sincerity that foreshadows events to come. The Neptunes make their first appearance for the starry I Know, a rather ruthless ode to the addicts who's misery lines the pockets of our American Gangster. Much like Sweet, the song isn't bad by any means, but nothing to write home about either. Party Life, a self explanatory theme, is one of those songs that will forever be mentioned when Jay's career is mentioned. Oozing with the soul of the 70's, Hovi's flow is just beyond slick as the man reminds us all of who has the swagger of all swaggers.
Originally penned for The Black Album, Ignorant Shit should have stayed there as it sticks out like a sore thumb here. It is really the only song that is by Jay-Z the rapper, rather than by Shawn Carter the hustler. It's good stuff and all, but given that it doesn't fit the concept at all why not give it the bonus track treatment? DJ Toomp comes through and cooks up something lovely for Say Hello as the negativity begins to bubble with a subtlety again suggestive of Reasonable Doubt. Success is the beginning of the end where despite all the riches the AG is bitter and paranoid. The theme is played out beautifully over No I.D.'s organs, Nas and Jay playing the rivals clearly inspired by the sampled scene from the movie. Jigga saves his best for last and turns in a truly breathtaking performance for the dramatic and inevitable fall of the gangster. Fallen boasts the beat of JD's career and unquestionably one of Jay's stupidest flows. I mean gotdamn! "And he can't beat the odds/can't cheat the cards/can't blow too hard, life's a deck of cards/now ya tumblin' is humblin'/ya fallin', ya mumblin'/under ya breath like you knew this day was comin'/now let's pray the arm candy that ya left ya ex for stay down and come in handy/cause come January, its gets cold/and the letters start to slow and ya commissary's low/and ya lawyer screams appeal only thinkin' 'bout his bill/and ya chances are nil, damn gravity's ill."
Though I would argue Blue Magic fits the concept better than Ignorant Shit, the ridiculous Neptunes banger joins the Just Blaze-produced title track as bonus cuts. Both are welcome additions and thankfully added on outside of the concept portion of the LP. With every subsequent Jay-Z album, the comparison has always been with Reasonable Doubt. It's unrealistic to expect him to capture the magic or the mind frame in which he made that album, but he nearly does it with American Gangster. Not to say this is necessarily his best album since his debut, but given the theme a similar vibe is in its veins. Ever the master of malicious coke raps with murmurs of lamentation and humanity, Jay makes it all go down sweeter with flows befitting of his reputation. Even though he rarely makes reference to himself as a rapper - largely sticking to character - his enduring brilliance is on display as much as it ever was without needing his insistence of it. Where this ranks amongst Jay's catalogue will be determined as time passes. It certainly isn't perfect, but it has a quality that should resonate into something special. Maybe he said it best himself a decade ago; "last year when niggas thought it was all up/this year, I did it again...Jigga, what the fuck?!?"